Stewardship of the Gospel – A theological reflection on lawsuits

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Stewardship of the Gospel – Stewardship of the Diocese

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JANUARY 4, 2013  – The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, after much prayerful consideration and reflection, has chosen to seek relief in the courts for the relentless challenges made to its integrity as a Diocese by The Episcopal Church (TEC).   Many of our parishes have joined in this request for justice because their own integrity is also at stake in these matters.  Indeed, the very integrity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it has been handed down to us through the ages, through the apostles and martyrs, is at stake.

We believe our legal approach to be an essentially defensive strategy  one which asks a court to declare the parties rights & relationship once and for all; what has sometimes been called “legally binding preventive adjudication”

This decision was first and foremost about Our Stewardship of the Gospel. Our governing reality is this: We do not believe that TEC owns the property in the Diocese of South Carolina; we do not believe that the Diocese of South Carolina owns it. God owns it. He will dispose of it in his sovereign wisdom.  However, as as stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1-2) we have obligations.

Primary is our obligation to be stewards of the “deposit” of faith entrusted to us (1 Tim. 6:20 and 2 Tim. 1:14).  We, as the Diocese of South Carolina are stewards and servants of the Gospel’s truth.  That reality has further implications.   We are stewards of the Gospel identity which was launched centuries ago by the Diocese of London.   We cannot lightly set this precious gift and heritage aside. We are also stewards of our property.   Our buildings, chapels, carved pulpits, mission centers, kitchens, the places where generations of families have knelt together—all of this has a sacramental dimension.  They are places of encounter. And we are entrusted to make sure that the true Gospel is alive in these places. Finally, we are stewards God’s call, to make biblical Anglicans for a global age.  The paths of TEC and this Diocese have diverged in radically different directions.   Stewardship of our Gospel calling requires separation.

With so much at stake, we must consider carefully how scripture, tradition and reason can best inform and suggest a precedence for Lawsuits among Believers.   In 1 Corinthians 6:1-8,  Paul’s overall goal seems to be to lead these brothers to find wisdom, to discover a wise mediation to the problem. In Corinth, that was best sought within the community of faith.  With no viable ecclesiastical alternative, the civil courts (far different than those of Corinth) are our remaining viable alternative.  Paul was dismayed at the inner motives on display in this lawsuit in Corinth and its self serving character.  The declarative judgment we seek does not attempt to extort gain from the other party, but is simply a disciplined effort to establish justice.  Paul was dealing with a situation in which the matter is trivial or least in importance. This is worlds away from our situation.  Likewise, we do not find ourselves now in an inner parish setting such as the one Paul describes, but in one with the Gospel stewardship of many parishes at stake. Finally, this passage assumes a core and basic Christian brotherhood (6:6). We have lost the common ground.  Back beneath any legal contest stands a more massive fracture: we are in a desperate struggle to define the meaning of Christ himself and the truth and reliability of His Word.

While without question, gratuitous lawsuits are ugly and counter to our Christian witness, Christians may often find themselves in circumstances where justice and wisdom can be upheld nowhere other than the civil courts.  It is here that the ancient boundary stones which have been wrenched away might be restored again to their true place (Proverbs 23:10).  Such is our circumstance.

A Case for Just Legal Action can also be drawn from Christian tradition. The Just War Tradition has a long history in the annals of the Church beginning with Augustine of Hippo and delineated in a more extended form by St. Thomas Aquinas.  The classic articulation of its principles would include: Just Cause, Legitimate Authority, Formal Declaration, Right Intention, Probability of Success, Proportionality and Last Resort.  On the basis of all these criteria, we believe our recourse to litigation qualifies as a moral act.

Finally, the life of St. Paul (Acts 22-25) provides a final helpful Case Study of how the principles and concepts of Gospel stewardship outlined above can be applied in a context not dissimilar to our own.  Paul exercises his right as a citizen on three related occasions when facing potential harm and persecution. He does so first at the time of his arrest on the Temple grounds (Acts 22:25), then again when he learns of the plot to murder him (Acts 23:12-15) and most decisively when it appears Festus is about to give him to the Temple leaders for a trial (Acts 25:10-11).

Throughout, he is not averse to defending himself by appealing to the legal apparatus of his day.   He has rights as a Roman citizen, which from time to time, he will exercise (c.r. Acts 16:37-40).  He does so in a fashion that focuses on his present and future ability to proclaim the gospel. All this on his part is done in a fashion that does no material harm to anyone.   There is, however, the clear assertion of his truth over that of his accusers.   Paul is able to stand on his conscience with complete integrity as a steward of the Gospel.

The analogy to our circumstances here in the Diocese of South Carolina is striking.  Our action is in response to over 3 years of steadily escalating attempts to interfere in our Gospel life and ministry by TEC.  Now, like St. Paul, we have exercised our right as citizens and “appealed to Rome” for relief from those who seek to do us harm.   Our request for a declaratory judgment seeks nothing but the affirmation of the truth:  that we, like Paul, have done no wrong.   We believe our actions to date have been legal, moral and justifiable.

For the sake of our stewardship of the Gospel; for the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this Church has received them; for the preservation of the ministry of our parishes in the Lowcountry, we can do no other than defend our Diocese and its ability to spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom.