I have been a member of the Sydney Synod now for ten years. One of the things I appreciate most about the Synod is that it is generally committed to following the Bible as God’s Word and to considering our theological commitments before making decisions. Which is why I am disappointed with the decision made by the Synod last year to impose a levy on every parish to raise funds to buy land for new churches in ‘greenfields’ areas.
A levy is a tax for a specific purpose. This levy has been charged at 2.24% of each parish’s Gross Operating Receipts meaning that it will raise $2 million in 2013. It is taken in 10 monthly installments (commencing in March) along with Parish Cost Recovery charges and is allocated to the Mission Property Committee. While the initial approval is only for one year it is intended to make this an ongoing charge.
I want to make clear that I am NOT disappointed because we are committed as a Diocese to planting churches in new growth areas. Nor am I disappointed that the Synod decided this project should have priority over many other worthwhile projects. What IS disappointing is that we chose to raise the funds by imposing a levy on the parishes.
Biblical Teaching about Fundraising:
My first concern is that the framers of this levy and the Synod did not give adequate thought to the Biblical teaching on fundraising.
One of the very few NT passages that addresses giving is 2 Corinthians 8-9. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to give generously to the special appeal he intends to take back to the church in Jerusalem. He uses the Macedonians as an example of a group that gave 'as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability' (8:3), he speaks of urging Titus 'to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part' (8:6) and then urges the Corinthians directly to 'also excel in this grace of giving' (8:7). Paul tells the Corinthians that he is 'not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love' (8:8) and reminds them of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (8:9). Nonetheless, he seeks to clarify (in 8:13), that 'our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality'. After urging the Corinthians to 'sow generously' (9:6) he says 'Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver'. (9:7). The emphasis throughout is on generous and voluntary giving that mirrors the grace of God toward us in Christ. The idea of 'compulsion' in giving is the very opposite of what Paul is saying here.
A levy is a compulsory payment for a specific purpose. The fact that it is a good mission purpose does not negate the Biblical principle and make the levy right. For this reason alone we ought to drop the idea of imposing levies on the parishes. On the other hand the passage models the appropriate method to raise such funds - by encouraging and urging the people to give generously (without compulsion) in response to God's grace.
Implications from the Doctrine of Church.
My second concern is about the doctrine of the church implied by the Synod imposing such a levy on the parishes.
During the debate in Synod there were a number of comments suggesting that we (the Synod) are the representatives of the church or even that 'we are the church' and therefore that the Synod has the authority to impose such a levy. I am not questioning the legal authority of Synod to impose the levy, but I do suggest that this approach misunderstands the nature of the church and especially the appropriate relationship between the churches and the denomination.
The Biblical understanding of 'The Church' is of one heavenly and eschatological gathering of God's people around the throne of God. (1) The other usage of 'church' in the New Testament is of the local church as a visible and genuine expression of the heavenly reality. In our foundational Articles we read: 'The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [people], in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered' (Article 19).
Speaking of a Christian family, Archbishop Peter Jensen says 'It is not part of the body of Christ; it is the body of Christ. It is, like our Sunday meeting, a genuine manifestation of the one true church to which we all belong'. (2)
The denomination, however, is not normally 'church' by the Biblical definition. Former Principal of Moore College Broughton Knox says that 'the denomination is not a church, inasmuch as the denomination never gathers', and '(t)he denomination is an organizational structure to facilitate the fellowship of the church with Christians in other churches'. (3) He goes on to say 'The denomination and its officers have a ministry which is common to all Christians, that is to help, advise, encourage and exhort the congregation and its members. It should not apply sanctions to the congregation or to any of its members, beyond the sanction of severing its links of fellowship with that congregation. Coercion destroys fellowship, . . .' (4)
On this understanding the Synod of the Diocese is a gathering of representatives of the churches with responsibility to ensure the efficient administration of the diocesan bodies and to make decisions on the expenditure of common funds (ie. from the Diocesan Endowment). The Synod (with the Archbishop) will also have oversight of various organisations established by the diocese for special purposes, such as theological education, supporting evangelism, the operation of schools, retirement villages, social services and the like. It is also quite reasonable for the Diocesan administration to recover costs or charge the churches for items such as insurance, superannuation, legal services etc. which it provides or manages as a service to and on behalf of the churches (ie. Parish Cost Recoveries).
The Synod or the Archbishop (or both together) may also, by various means, seek to advise, encourage, or exhort the churches and individual Christians to act in certain ways or to support certain causes. However they have no right to insist on particular kinds of support or to impose a levy to fund particular ministries or mission activities.
The Right Way to Do Fundraising.
The appropriate way to raise support for any ministry or mission activity - whether existing ministries such as evangelism or theological training, or proposed ministries such as the purchase of land, the building of church buildings or supporting new ministries - would be for the Archbishop or the Synod (or both together) to support an appeal to the churches and to individual Christians. This would seem to be more in line with Biblical models (such as 2 Corinthians 8-9) and with the 'Vision for Growth' model developed under Archbishop Robinson in the 1980’s.
I do not suggest that as a Diocese we should stop raising funds to buy land for new and existing churches. But I believe we ought to do so in a way that is in accordance with the scriptures and our theological understanding of the relationship of our Diocese with the churches. I do not think that any project that is funded in a way that contradicts God’s word should expect God’s blessing.
Richard Blight, March 2013.
(1) See Peter T. O'Brien, 'The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity' in D.A. Carson (ed.) The Church in the Bible and the World (Exeter: Paternoster, 1987), p. 88-119, 307-311.
(2) Peter F. Jensen, At the Heart of the Universe: What Christians Believe. (Homebush West: Lancer, 1991), p. 138.
(3) Knox, 'Church, Churches and Denominations' in Kirsten Birkett (ed.) D. Broughton Knox, Selected Works, Volume II: Church and Ministry (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2003) p. 96. Knox calls the denomination a 'parachurch organisation' that exists 'alongside the churches to facilitate fellowship within and between churches, each of which is a full and true visible expression of the one holy catholic heavenly church, the fellowship round Christ of all his saints (Heb 12:22-24)'. p. 95.
(4) Knox, p. 98.