I’d rather see a religious criminal go free than see the Church of the Living God ravished by secular authorities.
Many Americans will be disturbed at my question, and my answer will cause many weak knees to jerk incessantly. Do we really believe in the sovereignty of Christ over the local church? Do we really believe that Jesus Christ is preeminent in everything as recorded in Philippians? Many people will affirm that He is supreme in all spiritual matters but not in everything. But then, that is not taught in Scripture and it is not sovereignty.
Christ being sovereign over everything does not mean that preachers are sovereign! We preachers are accountable to authorities like everyone else, but there are limits. We must (like all Christians) obey God rather than man whenever there is a conflict. If a preacher is a thief, molester, rapist, etc., then he should go to prison (as many have). But he must go to jail without the government encroaching on the local church.
Some authorities will say, “But we can’t stop that abuse and put the bad preacher in jail without getting the church records.” Too bad. I’d rather see a religious criminal go free than see the Church of the Living God ravished by secular authorities.
A legitimate exercise of government as it relates to churches is seen in the extreme example: Suppose a cult believes it should sacrifice a 16-year-old virgin (after a very long search!) every May 1 in a religious ceremony. In that case, government has a “compelling interest,” and should get involved. That is legitimate government activity-to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, but no government entity has authority to snoop into church records.
“But what does a church have to hide if it is legitimate?” asks the Innocent One. You don’t understand. It has nothing to do with hiding anything. It has to do with principle. To surrender church records is surrendering sovereignty of the church to Caesar. Can you imagine the Apostle Paul or Peter giving Rome their membership list or a list of their contributors? The thought is even breath-taking!
“But, it’s the law,” says another. Ah, yes, the law and the law clearly says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” No law still means, no law, and the U. S. Constitution has precedence over all federal statutes.
Christians have such respect and appreciation for law that they often do not understand that our responsibility to authority is limited. We are not required to obey authority when that authority is contrary to the Word of God. We are also not required to obey an unconstitutional law; however, we are seeing our freedoms eroding because of cowardice and because of unreasonable, unscriptural and unconstitutional obedience to whatever an “authority” demands.
When a state or federal official demands church records (or licensing, commissioning, accreditation, certification, etc.) then the church must make a decision. And that decision should be made by the church not the pastor, a committee or a board. Whatever decision is made it should be made by the congregation. No pastor should be expected to carry such a responsibility alone because it is a church decision.
A church can do one of four things as to release of church records:
(1) Not keep records, however this will usually be contrary to a state corporation, and most churches are incorporated.
(2) Give them everything. This is what most churches do.
(3) Give them selected information. The church will decide what is germane and what is not; however, the sovereignty issue has been breached.
(4) Give them nothing. The church body decides that the church records are private and beyond the purview of any government official.
Would church members want various and sundry public officials knowing what they gave to the church? (If a church wants to confirm to the IRS that John Smith gave $4,000.00 to the church last year, that is a little different matter.) Would potential deacons want various public officials reading the minutes of the church board where their qualifications for the office of deacon were discussed? What would a husband and wife say if the pastor’s notes of their counseling sessions were turned over to a state or federal bureaucrat? If you were a Christian school teacher, youth pastor, etc., would you want your semi-annual or annual evaluation in the hands of government officials?
A word of caution is in order: church leaders must thoroughly consider this matter, pray about it, then have the congregation decide what to do. You should also be aware that many people may go to jail with the pastor such as the treasurer, financial secretary and chairman of the board. And may I suggest that you don’t go to jail for one night if you are not willing to stay there “till shrimp learn to whistle.”
While in the House of Representatives, I sat on a Select Committee of the House and Senate to look into licensure of day cares in Indiana. The president of the state day care licensing board responded to one of my pronouncements that Bible churches in the state would never submit to a license by saying, “You churches seem to think you are something special.” I leaned into my mike and said, “You’ve got it right neighbor, and if you don’t like it, go change the Constitution.” But the fact is, Christians must obey the Bible even if we are not supported by law. This principle is applicable in every nation. The church of God is sovereign, and I believe it should never turn its records over to anyone for any reason.