Court decisions that permitted local congregations to keep their properties after they withdrew from denominations were allowed to stand last month in decisions handed down by the U. S. Supreme Court.

The high court refused to hear appeals from the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. and the Maryland and Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God, which sought legal rights to properties of congregations that had seceded (see editorial, p. 26).

The decisions were a surprise. One seasoned reporter of the religious scene, Bob Bell, Jr., of the Nashville Banner, wrote that “church property rights became a whole new ball game” as a result of the court’s refusal to review the cases.

The Presbyterian case was up before the court for a second time. It involved two Savannah congregations, Hull Memorial and Eastern Heights, that withdrew from the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. in 1966 charging that the denomination had changed its tenets. Lawyers for the denomination sought to get title to the properties using the argument of “implied trust.” The idea behind this theory was that the congregations had been built up by people who went there because the churches were Presbyterian, and that the local trustees held the property for the denomination.

Georgia courts accepted this theory initially, but said that implied trust involved theological standards and that the two congregations were right in saying that the denomination had departed from its original theological base. The U. S. Supreme Court turned back the case last year, saying “First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice.” The court declared that the First Amendment “commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine.”

The Georgia court then countered by saying that if theological doctrines cannot be considered, then the implied-trust theory is invalid and the denomination had no basis on which to claim the property. The Supreme Court has just refused to review that decision.

Ordinarily, mere refusal of the Supreme Court to hear appeals is not regarded as substantial precedent for future cases. This litigation, however, will probably encourage more congregations to secede and take their property with them. Chances of success vary, depending on how church constitutions and articles of incorporation are written.

Seceding churches will also try to appeal to comments made in the Churches of God decision by Justice William J. Brennan (who is a Roman Catholic). Brennan’s comments, specifically concurred in by Justices William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall, noted that a state “may adopt any one of various approaches for settling church property disputes so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal matters, whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or the tenets of faith.”

Article continues below
Who Is A Jew?

In a historic pronouncement last month, the Israeli Supreme Court drew a legal distinction between “peoplehood” (nationality) and religion of the Jewish people. The judges ruled in a 5–4 decision that the government must register the children of a Jewish father and gentile mother.

The nature of Jewry has long been in dispute. The current case involves an Israeli naval officer whose wife refused conversion to Judaism but fully joined her husband’s concept of “belonging to the Jewish people.” The government would not register their children, claiming that the Jewish religion and peoplehood are indivisible as defined by the Halachah, Jewish religious law, which recognizes as Jews only children of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism.

Zoning Law Seen Banning Bible Classes

The community of La Canada, California, is not usually where the action is—religiously or otherwise. The official weekly news service of the Evangelical Press Association, which operates out of La Canada, normally must handle its reportage by remote control. But in January something finally happened right in La Canada, and EPA News Service director Norman B. Rohrer was on the spot. Here is the full text of his story:

Can’t a law-abiding citizen invite friends to his home for Bible study?

Not in La Canada, California, according to the Los Angeles County Office of the District Attorney—or at least if the class becomes large and meets regularly.

For some months now, the Reverend Donald Sills, of United Community Church in nearby Glendale, has been inviting young people to his home in La Canada for Bible study. No advertising was made, but notice of the meetings passed informally between young people of the foothill communities, and some fifty to one hundred people regularly showed up.

They had no music, few refreshments, and were cautioned to park their cars so neighbors would not be inconvenienced.

But the Reverend Mr. Sills has been told by Deputy District Attorney Joseph V. Siler that he is in violation of the Los Angeles County Zoning Ordinance 1494, Section 202, in that he is conducting regularly scheduled public Bible studies in a residence in zone R-1. “These scheduled meetings constitute public assembly and as a use of property it is not specifically permitted in a residential zone,” the notice reads.

Article continues below

The DA acted on a complaint, but the Sills family doesn’t know where it might have come from.

The informal Bible classes are called “Anything Goes,” a reference to the freedom of discussion topics. They’re held about twice a month on a quiet secluded street high on the hill near the Angeles Crest Highway, which crosses the Sierra Madre mountain range.

As is expected of a minister of the Gospel, Mr. Sills is not a troublemaker, but he is questioning the law that is closing his Bible class. The most recent gathering (January 22) brought fifty-five young people in late teens or early twenties for a discussion that centered around the second coming of the Lord. Two teen-agers, Mr. Sills said, gave their hearts to the Lord at the evening gathering.

An avalanche of support has been phoned and mailed to the minister, who serves as Christian education director for Dr. Stuart McBirnie, a Glendale pastor heard nationwide on radio through his program “The Voice of Americanism.”

Apparently the title “Anything Goes” appears a bit too ambitious in the eyes of the Regional Planning Commission and the District Attorney.

‘Trying To Look Responsible’

An inner-city church of 220 members has offered to pay the city of Portland, Oregon, for police and fire protection, sewerage, and street lighting.

Leaders of Centenary-Wilbur Methodist Church think the church will pay about $700 a year to end a “free ride” given to it by taxpayers. The official board unanimously approved the offer. A number of congregations across the country have now allocated funds to government agencies.

The church has a building valued at $245,000, on which it owes $15,000.

“We are trying to look responsible,” said A. Harper Richardson, the church’s minister. “It doesn’t help evangelism for us to get a free ride and others to pay the tax for us.”


Regulating Compassion

The Mennonite Central Committee, a relief agency operating on behalf of American and Canadian Mennonites, is experiencing frustration in its attempt to give away surplus Canadian wheat to starving villagers in India.

The Canadian section of the MCC, based in Winnipeg at the heart of Canadian wheatland, says it could use 250 tons of wheat and flour in its projects in India. Mennonite farmers in western Canada are willing to donate the grain, but the Canadian Wheat Board, the government regulatory agency, refused to allow it.

Article continues below

The board states that the move could clog already jammed facilities and would also interfere with Canadian grain markets. The Mennonites counter both objections. They say they would deliver the grain directly to oceangoing vessels and thereby bypass overburdened grain-handling facilities. They further pledge that they will distribute the grain only to their own overseas projects.

The Mennonites’ annoyance at the government’s two years of delaying tactics is reaching the breaking point. They are wondering about staging a test case of civil disobedience. A truckload of bagged grain could be shipped directly to Vancouver without the necessary permission of the board. The government would then be forced to decide if it was prepared to prosecute a church group for trying to help starving people.


India: The Way To Life

The teeming millions in India would have been totally unaware of what was happening in Deolali, 140 miles from Bombay. Neither the dry landscape, the rugged hills, the sight of military barracks in the distance, nor the goods train that steamed way out of sight gave the slightest hint of the events that in the next four days would challenge some 300 men and women into becoming “vehicles of God’s purpose for the land in this day.”

It was January 4, 1970, and Christian leaders had come from all corners of India for the first All India Congress on Evangelism. For months congress coordinator B. A. Prabhakar and others had worked to plan this gathering, convened by the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Now excitement was at high pitch. Thoughts went back to Berlin, when thirty-five Indian delegates attended the World Congress on Evangelism, and then to Singapore, when more than one hundred represented India at the Asian Congress on Evangelism.

As the clock showed 5:40 P.M., EFI executive secretary Ben Wati stood to open the event: “With the psalmist let us say, ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.’ ” Suddenly there came the consciousness that each one present was part of what could be the most significant event for the cause of Christ in India.

Sessions continued till January 8. The well prepared strategy papers offered practical consideration of such important matters as how to counteract syncretism and universalism, how to communicate to the Hindu and Muslim, how to determine whether social concern is biblical, how to use tracts more effectively, how to be more effective in the role of personal evangelist.

Article continues below

After the papers were read, twenty discussion groups provided an opportunity for delegates to discuss problems in the light of their own involvement. And in regional groups they tackled issues being faced in various sections of the land.

Thirty-seven prayer cells met each morning. Later came a Bible-study hour in which John Paul, a noted Bible teacher from Bihar, vividly outlined the making of a man of God and knowledge of the Lord. “Our religious life must be the outcome of our knowledge of Christ,” he said. “What is required is a personal knowledge of his love. Evangelism must be the flowing out of this love.”

Each evening the day’s highlights were recaptured as EFI chairman Dr. K. Thirmumalai, Youth for Christ president Victor Manogarom, and Mr. H. Mirchulal of the Allahabad Bible Seminary spoke at the last meeting of the day.

At the final session of the congress, delegates sang movingly, “The vision of a dying world is vast before our eyes. We feel the heartbeat of its need, we hear its feeble cries.…” Then came the thrilling moment when all stood to read together the congress declaration. “… We confess we have often failed to meet the needs and the challenge of our times …,” they said. “Therefore the Lord enabling us we shall seek to mobilize the whole Church in India to reach our land with the Gospel.… We pledge to stand together in witness and service.…”

Many went away ready to face the challenge immediately. One delegate from Punjab wrote, “When I go back I shall call the church leaders and laymen of the 135 churches in my area for a seminar on evangelism. I’m just waiting to get more involved in evangelism and to challenge them to do the same.”

The congress is over, but its impact has only begun. Questions loom large (What have we achieved? What now?), and the task seems greater than before. But 300 men and women have pledged to face it and to show India “the way to a true and abundant life.”


Uncovering The Mystery

Members of an international search team dedicated to finding out the origin of ancient wood found on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey hope to get to the bottom of the mystery this summer and next.

SEARCH (Scientific Exploration and Archaeological Research Foundation) of Washington, D. C., announced a $1 million fund drive last month in Los Angeles. Some of the team members believe wood found at the edge of a glacier near the 14,000-foot level last summer (see September 12, 1969, issue, page 48) is from Noah’s ark.

Article continues below

Samples taken there then have been tested, and the tooled wood is said to be between 1,500 and 1,600 years old—a figure that doesn’t square with carbon-test dating of samples found at the same spot in 1955. That wood was said to be four to five thousand years old.

Ralph A. Lenton, Arctic Institute of North America explorer and leader of the twenty-five-man team, said plans are now under way to establish a camp on the mountain early this summer. Some 900,000 cubic meters of ice and rock must be chipped away to free the “ancient artifact,” Lenton said. At least one helicopter and one plane are needed for the job, which could be completed in the summer of 1971.

Seventh-day Adventist Harry Crawford of Denver, who has scaled Mount Ararat seven times, will head the engineering contingent of SEARCH. The 35-year-old mountaineer calls the venture “the most significant expedition since the moon landing.”

Oaths In Kenya

Her husband had been dragged out of their home, near Rungiri Church in Kenya’s Central Province, to be “oathed,” and on refusing he had been fatally beaten. Now as she stood barefoot beside her husband’s coffin in the hot midday sun, she could recognize some of her husband’s killers among the solemn-faced mourners, some of whom now wore police uniforms.

“My late husband and I have forgiven all you people of Rungiri,” she told the mourners in a quiet composed voice. “We have forgiven all those who came to our home to fetch us, those who tortured us. My husband asked me before his death to inform you that he had forgiven all who had been connected with his death.”

The speech was the shortest of the occasion but the most memorable one. Across the Kenya nation today, people repeat the words of Samwel Githenji’s widow, extending the same kind of forgiveness to the whole Kikuyu tribe.

The strange wave of forcing oaths was designed primarily to close the ranks of the Kikuyu and consolidate the tribe’s dominant position in the government. It had created deep distrust and fear among other tribes, particularly the Kikuyu’s traditional rivals, the Luos, who were embittered by the assassination by a Kikuyu of Tom Mboya in July.

The oath-taking apparently started on a small scale before Mboya’s death, and is suspected to be linked with it. But it reached its peak shortly after the assassination, when it involved kidnapping people from their homes or on journeys, grievous assault, and extortion of money and goods to make people act contrary to their conscience. The oath-taking resulted in commitments to lie, steal, murder, and both sack and appoint people in jobs for the cause. By December 6, election day, more than 90 per cent of the Kikuyus had been oathed, according to reliable sources.

Article continues below

The relatively small number of committed Kikuyu Christians formed the backbone of resistance to oathing, and became the target for brutality. Church leaders and the Christian press led the attack against the oath-taking, despite initial government denials that it was happening and the extreme caution of the local press.

When the government formally ordered an investigation, the Catholic Mirror commented: “How efficient will this belated official admission and action be? Time will tell. It is difficult to be optimistic.” And it was the controversial Christian newspaper Target that broke the spine-chilling news of the oath-taking to the Kenya public. In a front-page editorial, Target accused “the selfish few Kikuyu leaders” who were behind the oath-taking for “killing our unity.”

On September 21, a crowd of 50,000 Kikuyu Christians of all denominations met at the Anglican Cathedral at Fort Hall to declare, “Our loyalty first is to the Lord Jesus Christ.” After expressing wholehearted support for the constitution in its entirety, the crowd, “in obedience to the teaching of the Bible and recognizing that all authority is delivered from God,” denounced “all oathing now being administered on citizens, particularly to Christians against their will, contrary to both Christ’s teaching and the constitution of this Republic.”

The Christian Council of Kenya also issued a strong appeal to all Christians in the country to renounce any oath-taking and pledge themselves to work for national unity. The council reportedly tried in secret to persuade those responsible to put an end to the dangerous development.

The oath-taking seems to have stopped now, perhaps because the elections are over. At the elections the general good sense of the country triumphed; more than 60 per cent of the members of the former parliament were defeated at the one-party election, and no serious incidents were reported.

An Arab Common Bible

A new Arabic common Bible translation is being produced under the sponsorship of the United Bible Societies. The project is a cooperative effort of Arab Christians from several religious groups and all parts of the Arab world.

Decision to work on the translation is a result of an agreement reached by Arab church leaders a year ago. Additional groundwork for the project was laid last fall when nearly fifty Arab Christians from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Kuwait, and Iraq met in Beirut for three weeks. The conference was directed by Dr. Roland C. Stevenson, United Bible Societies’ translation consultant in East Africa and the Arab world.

Bishops, pastors, priests, professors, writers, and other professional persons attended the conference.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.