The international head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, responding to a lawsuit by three West Coast church members seeking to recover funds from a church-managed investment that went sour, has declared it is un-Christian to turn to secular courts.
The statement by Neil Wilson, president of the church's General Conference, in the Feb. 4 issue of the Adventist Review also contains a veiled threat that "litigation within the church could ultimately affect a person's church membership."
Ernie Ching, the West Coast lawyer who filed the suit last month, has complained that Wilson's statement in the magazine, which is widely read by church members, could have a "chilling effect" on the willingness of other Adventists who also lost money to join in similar efforts to recover their losses.
The controversy grows out of the bankruptcy last summer of Donald J. Davenport, a California doctor turned developer. Davenport relied on his status as a respected lay member of the church to secure investments in his real estate ventures from individual Adventists as well as local and regional units of the church.
His total indebtedness has been estimated at around $40 million, with more than half of that coming from church sources. Much of the church money lent to Davenport came from trust funds and represented the savings of individual Adventists.
Last month, three of the individual creditors filed a class-action suit in Portland, Ore., charging church leadership with fraud, securities-law violations and inept money management in its dealings with Davenport.
Wilson, who writes a weekly "From the President" feature in the Adventist Review, devoted an entire page in the Feb. 4 issue to "Adventists and Litigation." Quoting both the New Testament and the church's founder, Ellen White, Wilson asserted that "according to God's word, litigation is definitely not the Christian answer to resolving disputes and misunderstandings....
"While it seems clear from the counsel we have that courts and attorneys are needed in our world, they were never ordained to settle matters arising within the church," Wilson wrote. He cited a 19th century writing from founder White, which maintains that church members who go to court "expose the church to the ridicule of her enemies and cause the power of darkness to triumph. They are piercing the wounds of Christ afresh...."
In his statement, Wilson made no mention of the Davenport case or the suit it spawned. But he did refer to another case, which he did not identify, in which church members rejected counsel to settle their claims out of court. "As a result, several souls stumbled and lost their way spiritually," he said.
As a part of the West Coast class-action suit, Ching is attempting to secure names of individual Adventists who have lost money invested in church-run trust funds and encourage them to join in the suit. The law gives them a limited time to make that decision, and he fears that Wilson's statement will discourage their involvement.
"The conclusion they may draw from that statement," said Ching, who is himself an Adventist, "is that if you filed litigation and succeeded, your salvation may be in jeopardy," and that one may also jeopardize the salvation of others.
Charging that Wilson was obfuscating the real issue of the church's responsibility in the Davenport affair, Ching said, "What we may be looking at is a stained glass Watergate."