August 22, 2005

On the Independence of Calvary Chapel Congregations

GetReligion is running a story on two recent clergy termination scandals in California Calvary Chapels. While these stories are clearly tragic, I think that tmatt's discussion misrepresents the organization of Calvary Chapel. First, as one of the cited articles points out, there is a disciplinary measure available to, and used by, Costa Mesa: disaffiliation. Churches who do not subscribe to the beliefs and practices of Calvary Chapel are disaffiliated and prohibited from using the Calvary Chapel trademark. Calvary Chapel pastors, generally, are accountable to the pastor of some "parent church." For instance, my pastor at Calvary Chapel on the King's Highway is one of several who meet with, and are unofficially overseen by, Joe Focht of Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia. These overseeing pastors can report back to Costa Mesa if there is a problem and the pastor in question can be disaffiliated if necessary. Also, problems like those in Laguna Beach are created by compromises to the Calvary Chapel philosophy of church government which are made due to regulations of state goverments requiring non-profits to have boards (see here). Part of the point of Calvary Chapel's organization is that pastors should not be "hirelings" (see John 10:12-13). No one within the local congregation should have the authority to fire the pastor, because this undermines the authority relationships that are supposed to exist. But a pastor must have accountability somewhere, and therein lies the problem that Calvary Chapel and similarly organized churches must struggle with. Calvary Chapel's answer is an accountability structure that amounts to an unofficial episcopacy, backed by the threat of disaffiliation.

What has happened in the cases reported clearly represents a breakdown in this system. I don't understand why Costa Mesa did not step in sooner. For instance, based on 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, these lawsuits ought not to have been permitted. The disputes should have been settled by binding arbitration before pastors and elders of Calvary Chapel, and if either party refused to submit to arbitration, that party should have been AT LEAST disaffiliated (if not excommunicated). Now this is a slippery slope, when there is money involved. A panel of clergy orders you to pay some kind of settlement to another church member in binding arbitration and if you refuse you are excommunicated. What is to stop corruption? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to another related problem that you may have noticed above: Calvary Chapel can only disaffiliate pastors, it cannot remove them from their local churches. Presumably no one has the authority to do this. The answer, in both cases, is that Calvary Chapel is not (and none of us should be) afraid to let a church collapse when that is what is needed. I personally think that we must be prepared to let even whole denominations collapse in order to make way for God's next move; the longer and institution exists, the more it forgets its original purpose and the institution exists to preserve the institution. If abuses of power occur in a church, people will leave. If a pastor is disaffiliated from Calvary Chapel, his congregation will decide for themselves whether the disaffiliation was just, and if it was they will leave.

One more tangential remark: I do not unconditionally endorse all Calvary Chapel doctrine and government. My ideal church would, I think, be about halfway in between Calvary Chapel and the Presbyterian Church in America, as far as both doctrine and practice are concerned. For instance, I think that Calvary Chapel's single pastor government ought to be replaced by a small board of elders (the Church of Jerusalem in Acts had a congregation of over 5000, and only 12 elders) who share the authorities and responsibilities Calvary Chapel now gives exclusively to the pastor, but these elders should not be elected by and subject to removal by the congregation, as this undermines the authority relationships that are supposed to exist here. Also, theologically, although I am an Arminian and a premillenialist, I am not a dispensationalist, and so sometimes find myself at odds with Calvary Chapel eschatology, etc. I also greatly appreciate the Presbyterian church's emphasis on intellectual pursuits, an emphasis increasingly lacking from American Evanelicalism.

Posted by kpearce at August 22, 2005 11:58 AM
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Hi, Kenney. My name is Ray Matthew. I'm a member of a Calvary Chapel on the central coast of California and have been attending regularly for nineteen and one half years. Though I've been a Christian for thirty-five years and have donated tens of thousands of dollars over these years to the churches I've attended, I've never had voting rights at any of these churches (Each one was an independent evangelical church)
For the most part, I have been satisfied until most recently, for reasons I will explain latter.
When attending Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, (BA degree in speech/communications 1979), I thought about going to seminary. A number of my fellow speech/communication majors were going into the ministry, but, I felt that real leadership in the church ultimately lay with the layman...A professional pastor is expected to walk in holiness, know the bible, pray, be an evangelist, and take care of the needy, etc. But what about a regualar christian? I wanted to prove that what was expected from leaders should be largely expected and possible for a laymen as well, and the only way I could do prove this was to be a laymen...This conviction led me to wear out several bibles while pursuing a career in teaching and writing and developing a music and prayer ministry.
Some would call me a "prayer warrior" but I feel sort of funny with that discription...kind of egotistical sounding. Nevertheless, I suppost it fits for the most part, for intense interssory prayer is definitely a kind of warfare.
My home office/study looks a great deal like a pastor's study and I feel like I know the Bible well, and I've worn out quite of few bible bindings. So, after years of private learning and church services as well as years of personal ministry, it does seem strange to me that I have no official voice in my church and never have had and have no prospects of having an official voice.
The only way I can vote at Calvary Chapel is to vote with my feet. That's one kind of democracy, but not a very efficient kind.
I know this from personal experience, because my pastor recently made what many, including me, felt was an ill-advised and unfair decision to cut off support for one of our missionaries.
This missionary was dedicated in our church as a baby and was raised up as a mighty man of God. From all accounts, his parents and our church appear to have succeeded at this goal beyond everyone's highest hopes. He went to the Ukraine to establish a Calvary Chapel there and, while there, began to have doubts about one of the tenets of Calvary Chapel doctrine, ie. the belief in the pre-tribulation rapture. Finally he decided that there was not going to be a pre-tribulation rapture, but, rather, he believed in a post-tribulation rapture. He wrote our pastor and told him of his new conviction and that he would teach this to his congregation. My pastor wrote back and tried to convince him to change his mind, but he didn't. After discussing the matter with his upline leadership at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa as well as his board of elders, my pastor notified the missionary that our church would no longer support him. Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa apparantly supported this decision, as did the board of elders, though there was sharp disagreement from at least one of the elders. (However, at least one other Calvary Chapel in our area continues to support this missionary and they are informed of his convictions.)
While no one that I know of strongly took exception to the Calvary Chapel doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture, many felt that, since it is so hard to get anyone qualified to leave the USA and become a missionary in a distant land, disagreement over the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine should not result in the missionary getting his funding cut off. If the man were a pastor in the USA, well, maybe then, but not if he has made such a high sacrifice---becomming a missionary to the Ukrain. Especially since he is, by all accounts (including our pastor's), doing a very good job---other than his disagreement over the non-salvational doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture.
If the young man were preaching that Jesus didn't actually rise from the dead or some other heresy, that would be a different matter. We shouldn't support heresy with money. But is that the case with this young man? Doee teaching in a post-tribulation rapture, rather than a pre-trib rapture rise to the level of a dangerous heresy or is it even dangerous in any way? Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa's leadership and most of the leaders at my church apparantly think it is a dangerous teaching. My pastor explained in his letter to the church that he believed, based upon his experience, people will become complacent if they don't believe a pre-tribulation rapture, thinking that all they have to do is wait for the tribulation period to start before they get their spiritual act together.
I can see the point of his concern, though I think one could honestly argue that the opposite might be also true, that those who are expecting a rapture may not be prepared to handle it if there is no pre-trib rapture, that they may flake out with fear because they weren't prepared to suffer. Millions have suffered for Christ in the past, millions suffer now, and millions will be beheaded for there faith during the tribulation for refusing to take the mark of the beast...these things we know have, are, and will happen. if those that are beheaded during the tribulation period are those that were left behind after the pre-trib rapture, but who conconverted, they are still christians when they die. If, as pre-tribulationist often argue, christians were not appointed to the Wrath of God, therefore are to be raptured, how do you explain these left behind christians? There is no doubt that they are christians, yet, according to some pre-tribers, they appear to be experiencing wrath. There may very well be an intelligent explanation for this. Perhaps they are just experiencing the wrath of man, yet they live at least partly through the tribulation period where, there is no doubt, that the wrath of God is revealed in the various judgements explained in Revelation. Thus, I conclude, that there is at least some ligitimate arguement by the post-trib people and I do think they give us reason to ponder. Nevertheless, on the whole I believe the pre-trib position.
However, the main disagreement that I and various other members of my church had was not doctrinal, but moral and spiritual. Believing that the decision smacked of the extreme legalism of upside down priorities, many of us in the church disagreed so strongly that a number of us left the church, including at least one of the disagreeing elders and all the rest of our missionaries to the Ukrain (I believe at least five, including wives.) who planted other Ukrainian Calvary Chapel congregations (one had previously been our youth pastor.)
Our pastor sent an explantory letter to the church members, but I don't belive it had the effect he thought it would. At least as far as I'm concerned, in his efforts to defend his decision, he only succeded in convincing me even more that he was wrong, and I think his letter had a similar effect on many others.
All told, I believe that between ten to twenty percent of my church left over this decision, while several others, including most of the then worship team, who left just before this decision over various other issues. (It should also be noted that the elder who left also had other issues.)
Almost all who left were very long-term and highly committed "Members." (I use quotes becuase there is no official way to recognise membership at Calvary Chapel except by recognising regular attendence.)
I was not one of those who voted with my feet. I have, instead, decided to vote with prayer that we and all the rest of the Calvary Chapels would at least supplement, if not surplant, our top down stucture with some kind of bottom up structure to some degree or another. Can we hold leaders to account to the membership to a higher degree than they currently are officially required to? (which, is to say, there is no official requirement at all) I pray that we can.
Beside the unfortunate alternative of voting with our feet, cutting back or withholding our our tithes altogether is the only way we can unofficially vote.(Many catholics, by the way, are doing this because of their conviction that the Catholic Church is not responding properly to the the child molestation scandals...As you know, the Catholic church, has a top down, non-democratic structure as well.)
Most of the elders (all elders are appointed by the pastor) agreed with the pastor, but I think probably only twenty percent of our congregation as a whole would agree with this decision, though most, like me, did not leave. None of us were consulted before the decision was made and only found about about it after the objecting elder left. In fact, I only found out about it after a month or more when I began asking "whatever happened to so and so?" and was told that he resigned from the board of elders and left the chuch over this dispute.

I'm sure that many who did not leave are dissatisfied like I am. Though I don't expect perfect church government, I would like to be able to voice my objections and be sure they got sufficient hearing in something other than a volontary way by the part of leadership. As it is, it is up to my pastor's benevolence to listen to us or not. So far, he has listened over the years for the most part. But what control, other than my pocketbook or my presence, do I have if I am convinced he is not giving me and others like me a just hearing, which is bound to happen, as I think it has just recently? I believe that organizing a church around democatic lines fulfills the scriptural admonition of the prophets being subject to the prophets and loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others as you would have others treat you.
Some would object that that is not the way the New Testament established the church. That is true. But does the church, after two thousand years of history and five hundred years of printed bibles and widespread literacy, resemble the first century church? And, I would argue that no evangelistic bible study that evoles into an indepentent church (didn't all denominations start out as a kind of evangelistic bible study at one time?)could ever start out as democratic, since most of those who attend initially are new christians and, therefore, not yet qualified to lead. But, what happens after twenty years or more? Should the people, who, by now, should be very knowlegeable about scripture, be treated the same way as they were in the beginning when they knew nothing? And, after a pastor has led his people and taught his people for twenty years, if, after all this, they are not qualified to have any official voice in the affairs of their church's government, what does this say about the effectiveness of the pastor? Shouldn't he resign over his own incompetence if there is no one qualified among his congregation to hold him accountable (besides elders that he appoints with all the potential problems of his appointing 'yes men') There surely must be aditional accountability. There is at Calvary Chapel an unofficial episcopacy with a generalized upward accountablity. This is essential, but what if the upline goes offline as well, like many at my church believe happened at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa over the decision regarding the Ukrain missionary? Then what do we do? From the looks of it, we have few choices except to leave or withhold money. The other option, the one I have chosen, is to pray for a more democratic church government.

Posted by: Ray Matthew at February 17, 2006 05:40 AM

Ray, thank you for sharing your story. While I disagree quite emphatically with the suggestion that churches should be run democratically, I do think there is one major problem with the Calvary Chapel setup. This is the fact that if we look at word usage in the Bible, pastoring is one of the responsibilities of elders (see, e.g., 1 Peter 5:1-2), and mature congregations should, ideallly, have more than one elder (see, e.g., Titus 1:5). These elders, as far as we can see, are equals of one another. So, although we use the term elders to refer to a sort of "advisory board" that a Calvary pastor has, these are not, in fact, elders in the Biblical sense. According to the Biblical usage of the word, and the responsibilities given to elders in the Bible, the pastor of a Calvary Chapel is its only elder.

I am saddened to hear that Calvary Chapel thinks that the Pre-Trib rapture is this important. I am emphatically not a dispensationalist (though I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a Pre-Trib rapture), but this hasn't stopped me from teaching Sunday school, even when we were studying the Revelation. (I went to talk to my pastor about this when we began the book; I expected it might be a problem that I disagreed with what he was teaching in the Sunday morning service, but he thought it was fine for me to teach that there is a lot of disagreement about the interpretation of the Revelation, and there are a number of possibilities). I'm not at all sure that I buy the Pre-Trib theory, and I am sure that it's not a very important issue. All in all this is a very unfortunate circumstance.

Posted by: Kenny at February 17, 2006 01:33 PM
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