THE FIRST TIME CAROL Rodriguez entered the Cross Church in Fresno, Calif., she was an infant. Today, she is president of the church board. A member for more than 40 years, she has never known another congregation.
Clarence and Irene Weslowski, Cross Church members for 60 years, knew Mrs. Rodriguez when she was a baby, the daughter of a friend. Today, the Weslowskis know her as president of the board that voted to terminate their memberships in the church.
The Weslowskis and Mrs. Rodriguez are just three of the people involved in a brewing church split, a tragic tear in fellowship that has the camel of government poking its nose into the tent of the church. And not only at the Cross Church. If a Fresno County Superior Court judge's order in the resulting lawsuit stands on appeal, the camel could inch its way into the tent of the church universal.
Superior Court Judge J.N. Kapetan in January ordered the Cross Church board to reinstate members it terminated in September. The order drew gasps from legal observers, who saw it as a startling example of judicial arrogance. Robert Schmalle, attorney for the church, says his clients terminated certain members on biblical grounds. The reinstatement order, he contends, strikes at the very heart of the First Amendment ban on government intrusion into ecclesiastical matters.
But Joseph Arnold, who represents ousted church members, argues that the case isn't an ecclesiastical matter, but a corporate one: As a California nonprofit corporation, the church board violated its state-mandated constitution and bylaws, illegally booting the Weslowskis and others in an effort to silence dissent. His clients had to choose between going away quietly and fighting to remain in the church. The civil courts were their only recourse, he says, and the judge's order seeks to protect the plaintiffs' "property rights" in the church.
At the heart of the controversy is the gradual evolution of the church itself, and a newer pastor named Sam Freshwater. A small band of German immigrants from Russia organized the Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church, later called simply the Cross Church, in 1892. For more than half a century, the congregation, which despite its Lutheran name operated independently of any denominational hierarchy, maintained a liturgical tradition and a fondness for old ways. As recently as 40 years ago, men and women still sat on separate sides of the church, while the minister, clad in formal robes and ensconced in a high pulpit, delivered all sermons in German. In the 1960s, the church boasted nearly 2,000 members, according to Mrs. Rodriguez, making it one of the largest churches in Fresno.
But times changed and the church changed with them. As ethnic lines in Fresno blurred, the church replaced German-language services with English ones. As feminism altered attitudes about women's roles, the church dropped its gender-separate seating arrangement. Then, in the mid-1990s, the church launched a contemporary worship service that deemphasized creeds and liturgical prayers. For the benefit of older members, many of whose parents and grandparents helped found the church (and some of whom are now plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit), the church retained a traditional worship service.
But in 2002, the congregation called as senior pastor Rev. Sam Freshwater, who made changes that older members didn't like. For example, the Cross Church had always baptized infants by sprinkling, but the new pastor refused to baptize infants, and would christen or "dedicate" them. A rumor even emerged-untrue according to Mrs. Rodriguez-that the high pulpit cherished by older members was to be ripped out and replaced by a baptismal tub. Meanwhile, Pastor Freshwater also chafed at wearing clerical robes during the traditional service, Mrs. Rodriguez told WORLD. And he preferred to be down on the sanctuary floor when preaching, not perched in the high pulpit.
Those and other perceived offenses led the church's Men's Society last August to mount a petition drive in an effort to convene a special congregational meeting. Among other things, the men raised concerns about how Rev. Freshwater had left his position as senior pastor at a local Mennonite Brethren church. He had resigned in 1999 under mutual agreement with church leaders, over "performance style" issues, according to Bob Heinrich, church moderator of Bethany Mennonite Brethren church. "Sam will be Sam. He doesn't always agree with everybody," Mr. Heinrich told WORLD. This resignation, Mrs. Rodriguez said, was not made known to the congregation before they voted to call Rev. Freshwater as their pastor.
The Cross Church's constitution states that Mrs. Rodriguez, as executive board president, shall call a special meeting within 30 days of receiving a petition such as the one submitted by the Men's Society. Mrs. Rodriguez didn't call such a meeting, but instead determined that the Men's Society's concerns would be better evaluated under a different provision in the church's procedural manual. On Aug. 27, 2003, she convened the church's pastoral review committee. The committee, she told WORLD, carefully examined each claim by the petitioners, and found them all to be without merit.
The church board then tried to meet with the Men's Society to discuss the dispute, according to Mrs. Rodriguez, but no one from the group would come. Mrs. Rodriguez then tried to open communication by attending a Men's Society meeting. She was, she says, promptly asked to leave.
With lines of communication completely broken down and no reconciliation in sight, the Cross Church board decided to take action against members they felt were instigating the fissures in the fellowship. The board determined that six members had violated Matthew 18:15-17, which covers the handling of church disputes, and 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, in which Paul chastises believers for involving nonbelievers in church conflicts. On Sept. 13, three weeks after receiving the letters from the Men's Society, the church board sent its own letters, terminating the memberships of the Weslowskis and four others. The letters invited the terminated members to meet with the board on a specific date to discuss the issues, but no one came.
The terminated members were shocked. Irene Weslowski stated in a declaration that the Cross Church "Executive Committee is purposely terminating specific members ... in order to ensure that their positions on the Executive Committee are not threatened" during upcoming elections.
Mrs. Rodriguez paints a different picture. "These people were my dad's friends. I love them. I don't want to hurt them," she said. But, she added, "I think they're being misled" by people fomenting rumors. "What's happening is that the Bible tells you to try to work things out and reconcile. When people refuse to do that, there is a point where you have to rebuke."
Plaintiffs' attorney Joseph Arnold doesn't see it that way. "It's not like we're dealing with radicals here," he said. "These people [whose memberships were terminated] are the heart and soul of this church.... Their parents built this church. To me, this a very, very simplistic case. If you are taking advantage of nonprofit corporate status, then there are certain rules you have to follow.... Follow the rules. Have the special meeting, hear the grievances, then vote."
State courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have consistently steered clear of interfering in ecclesiastical matters, even in some cases that dealt specifically with church membership. Church attorney Robert Schmalle immediately appealed Judge Kapetan's order that the Cross Church reinstate terminated members, a move that halted its enforcement. Now the church dwells in an excruciating legal limbo that will likely last a year, while the case inches its way up the appeals court calendar.
If, in the end, the appeals court upholds Judge Kapetan's order, the ruling might open the way for incremental, Canadian-style judicial meddling in church affairs. The Apostle Paul may have envisioned just such a scenario when he wrote to the Corinthians, "Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you."