In Greek mythology, there is the story of the Trojan Horse, related to us in Homer’s Iliad. Paris was the son of Priam, the king of Troy. Paris was asked to judge a beauty contest between three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris chose Aphrodite because she promised him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife.
Soon after this, Paris visited Menelaus, the king of Sparta. There, Paris fell in love with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the most beautiful of women. Helen fell in love with Paris and fled with him to Troy.
The Greeks swore vengeance on Paris and on Troy. The fitted out ships and sent out an expedition led by Menelaus, his brother Agamemnon, Achilles, Ulysses, and many other Greek heroes. They laid siege on the city of Troy for ten full years and could not take the city.
Finally, Ulysses had a great wooden horse built.
He hid a number of Greek soldiers inside the horse and left the horse outside the walls of Troy. The rest of the Greeks then pretended to sail away. The curious Trojans eventually dragged the horse inside the city walls, although Laocoon, priest of Poseidon, warned them against such actions by saying, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
That night the Greek soldiers crept out of the horse, opened the city gates and let the rest of the Greek forces into the city. The Greeks massacred the Trojan people and plundered and burned the city.
How Takeovers Occur
Our churches today, as locally autonomous units, are threatened by a modern Trojan Horse through a hostile takeover. The religious environment at the close of the twentieth century has witnessed numerous “independent” congregations of various theological persuasions meeting in a variety of temporary facilities.
Some of these have experience considerable success and may be enjoying attendances of several thousand per Lord’s Day. As they begin to search for property and facilities in their neighborhood, the find that the price is staggering.
Then they discover one of our churches, which already has property valued at perhaps a million dollars or even more. Attendance has declined there, and the group learns that his congregation os locally autonomous. This can begin an attempt at a hostile takeover. The church encourages one, two or three families to begin visiting this locally autonomous congregation.
As these visitors arrive on the scene, we welcome them with open arms. They tell us that have been looking for a New Testament church. They are assured that they have found what they are looking for.
Then we ask, “Do you know any other families in your congregation who might be interested in attending our services?” Their reply may be that there are several other families that are likewise dissatisfied. They come and place membership and become a part of our congregation.
The number grows, and soon they outnumber of membership of the local congregation. All the time we are unaware of their hidden agenda. A congregational meeting is called, a vote is taken, and the new group becomes the dominating force in the church without paying one dime for the property or the facilities.
There are numerous examples of this in California, but may I share just one to illustrate. One of our congregations who has property valued at approximately $1.5 million has declined in membership and attendance due to an ethnic change in the community. Their attendance had declined to approximately 30.
One day, a man walked in off the street and indicated that he heard that they were without a minister. He had some preaching experience and would be glad to preach for them for little or nothing in the way of remuneration.
Such an offer seemed to be impossible to refuse and so he was engaged to be the minister. Some of his friends started to attend. They invited others and the attendance and membership began to grow. The church began to pay him a reasonable salary.
Subsequently, the elders of the church discovered that his teaching was not in accordance with their usual doctrinal position. The minister was given the opportunity to enroll in one of our Bible colleges. He was told the church would pay his tuition if he would enroll in a class in theology. He replied that he know what his theology was that that there was no need to go to school.
Finally, the elders called him into their meeting and discussed his deviant doctrinal position. He as adamant in his refusal to comply with the traditional teachings of the church and the elders asked for his resignation. He said, “You cannot fire me. It will take a vote of the congregation. The congregation hired me and the congregation must fire me.”
He was confident that the new members who had come into the fellowship of the church would stand behind him, and that he would have little or no difficulty in winning a congregational vote. His personality had already offended a number of the new people in the congregation, however, and they did not vote for him. He lost the vote.
The leadership of the church gave him two month’s severance pay and dismissed him from the ministry. Three months later, he sued the church for unlawful dismissal and financial distress. It took five court hearings and more than $16,000 in legal fees for the courts to rule that a locally autonomous church had the right to hire and fire their own preacher.
During the process of dismissing the preacher, the chairman of the board called the congregation from which most of these people lad come. He inquired concerning their congregation’s plans for building a facility in the future. He was told that the congregation had no property, but they understood that a property on a certain street was going to be given to them. The street that was named was the street on which our congregation was located!
Unfortunately, the modus operandi is not always the same. In fact, in almost every case, the circumstances differ. The one thing that remains the same is that there is a concerted effort to move in, win a majority, and unseat the people who paid for the buildings and plowed years of their life into the congregation.
We have discovered a number of circumstances that spell danger for the local church:
Attendance that decreases to less than 100 per Lord’s day’
Less than 35 active families involved in the church;
An eldership of less than seven dedicated, knowledgeable men;
Property that is valuable, but with a loan-to-value ratio of less than 50 percent.
One of our congregations was threatened with a political power play. The community was circulated with flyers that indicated the church was being taken over by the antichrist. They claimed the leaders were simply pawns that were being used the devil himself.
The elected leaders of the church were desperately fearful that this political group would come in and take over the facilities. The matter was discussed with legal counsel. It was determined that the way to protect the property from this hostile takeover was by putting the property into a trust.
Protecting the Church
Before a trust is set up, however, steps may be taken to sharpen the bylaws of the local congregation. The bylaws should contain at least three articles to identify the church, its membership, and its requirements for membership.
In the bylaws, ordinarily amendments may be made to any article in the bylaws upon a two-thirds majority vote of the congregation. We would suggest that on the first three articles defining purpose and polity, it take a 90% vote of the congregation to change those articles.
Furthermore, we suggest that in the bylaws and any other legal documents of the church, there be inserted an article with reference to liquidation.
Every legal document of the church should contain a paragraph containing an arbitration clause. More and more corporations are going to arbitration rather than disputes being settled by the civil courts to determine proper settlement of irreconcilable differences.
For ultimate protection, the church may elect to put their property in trust, naming an outside trustee to hold title to the church’s property. This can be done without monetary consideration, granting the local congregation full authority to conduct services and any and all other business of the church as they always have.
The trust then may be terminated upon two conditions: 1) when the congregation determines that it no longer wants to continue as a congregation, and 2) when, in the unilateral opinion of the trustee, the church is no longer serving as a Christian church under the New Testament restoration position tradition.
At that time, the trust would be terminated, the property would be liquidated, and the assets of the congregation would be distributed to the named beneficiaries in the trust document. The congregation at the time of setting up the trust determines what charitable beneficiaries are to be the recipients of the final distribution of assets.
The major decision in setting up a trust is that the congregation has to have unlimited trust in the trustee. The trustee should be some charitable organization which is dedicated to the principles of New Testament Christianity, and who loyal determination is to see that the church continue in its originally established position and purpose.
Hidden agendas in many “independent” congregations are perfectly illustrated by the Trojan Horse of antiquity. Let’s be vigilant to assure that our curiosity does not invite the Trojan Horse into our congregations, to the destruction of that cause, which has been so dearly established and protected.
Reprinted with Permission: This article originally appeared in The Christian Standard, August 2, 1992, pages 12 -13. At the time, Ralph Dornette was the CEO of Church Development Fund of Fullerton, California. Mr. Dornette is now deceased.