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News and views from the German-language region of Europe

July 7, 2005

What is an "ecclesiastical" decision?

Filed under CoG Potpourri

One reason given for excluding non-elders from church governance boards is that those boards are to make "ecclesiastical" decisions. The bylaws of the United Church of God, an International Association are a good example: "Decisions of the Council are ecclesiastical in nature", according to UCG bylaw 8.3.2, so non-elders do not serve on the UCG council. What is an "ecclesiastical" decision anyway? How about who should be a deacon? What about the amount given for mileage reimbursement?

My Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines "ecclesiastical" as "of or relating to a church esp. as a formal and established institution; suitable for use in a church (vestments)".

According to that definition, many of the decisions made by church boards are not ecclesiastical in nature. For the record’s sake, I believe that elders should make certain decisions, like deciding questions regarding church teachings or ruling on spiritual matters. This would mean, then, that certain non-spiritual, i.e., physical matters are not ecclesiastical in nature.

However, some would argue that financial matters are also ecclesiastical in nature. Or as one person asked the question: "Is collecting tithes and offerings and then deciding how to spend them really physical?" In other words, some see collecting and allocating funds within a church as an ecclesiastical matter.

If the collection of funds in a church and their allocation is an ecclesiastical function, then in a church like UCG that has established the precedent that only elders should be involved in "ecclesiastical" matters, only elders should be involved in fund collection. For those who see it this way, the principle would need to be applied consistently, whether locally or at the Home Office.

In my opinion, in an age where transparency is important for any charitable organization, this line of reasoning is dangerous.

What about spending money? If the allocation of funds is an ecclesiastical decision, then only elders should be involved in the decision-making. Why then would there be a difference between the UCG council and a UCG national council? If only elders should be involved in the decision-making, then it would be wrong for any national council anywhere within the UCG affiliation to have any non-elders as council members. That contradicts current practice within UCG.

Let’s cut to the chase: the issue here is money. Are elders the only ones capable of collecting money, deciding how it should be spent (including their own salaries, benefits and expense accounts) and spending it?

Nearly all of our UCG-Germany National Council meetings have been very harmonious. There was one meeting, however, with a few ripples on the pond. The ripples did not involve doctrine, the need to preach the gospel or visit the sick or anything of the kind. Instead, someone was disappointed because the National Council – at the time comprised of 3 elders and 4 non-elders – did not honor a request for a certain level of mileage reimbursement for travel on church business using a personal car. The council considered the request to be more expensive than necessary. Was this an ecclesiastical decision? Not in my book!

Some would argue that "serving tables" clearly is a non-spiritual, i.e., physical function and therefore also non-ecclesiastical. According to this viewpoint deacons, then, serve in a non-ecclesiastical function.

The implication here would be that the responsibility given to the first deacons in church history involved no financial decisions. In Acts 4:4 we read that the number of male believers numbered about 5000. Presumably there were a similar number of women believers. Acts 6:1 may indicate further growth beyond these numbers, so the church in Acts 6 may not have been all that fewer in numbers than all of UCG is now. The service involved a "daily ministration", not serving a couple of plates at an occasional church social. The providing of food had sparked feelings of being neglected among the Greek-speaking Jewish members.

How many widows were being taken care of daily in a total congregation numbering into the thousands? Possibly quite a few – a number larger than any number of UCG congregations. Who procured the food? How was it paid for? How were the funds to procure the food obtained?

What did the apostles turn over to these first 7 deacons? Just the serving of plates? Or did it involve the entire "operation", including food procurement and preparation? This may be "food" (pardon my pun) for thought!

(Not to mention the fact that the entire congregation – not the apostles – selected these deacons in the first place!)

In short, I agree that matters involving the spiritual service of elders are ecclesiastical in nature. Other matters are not. Including non-elders with outside business experience can benefit church boards in making those frequent decisions that are not "of an ecclesiastical nature."

Paul Kieffer's blog with personal insights and news from the German-language region in Europe.


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