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David 1, Goliath 0

[whitespace] Once in a while the little guy wins, even when he goes up against one of the world's most powerful churches

By Traci Hukill

BACK IN 1960, joining the Assemblies of God seemed like a good idea to the board members of Templo Juan 3:16, a small Spanish-speaking congregation on Capitol Expressway. The congregation would remain financially independent from the Assemblies--indeed, years later it purchased its own property without any help from the Assemblies--and fellowship with a larger ecclesiastical body would buoy church morale.

For a long time that's how things went. But the Assemblies are, after all, the tree from which slippery apple Jim Bakker fell, moments before he started his acquisitive PTL ministry. This spring, following a year of courtroom delays, Templo Juan found itself facing the Assemblies of God in court. At stake was Templo Juan's church and all its assets, valued at more than $1 million. The case hinged on an ecclesiastical disagreement over whether Templo Juan has the autonomy to decide matters of church leadership--and matters of its own affiliation.

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Fleecing of the Lambs: A report on Templo Juan's legal woes.

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To the great delight of Templo Juan's 150 members, early in March a Superior Court judge ruled that it does. As an elated Mark Santiago, a member of the church board of directors, says, "We challenged a big elephant and won."

Resolution has been almost three years coming. Trouble started in July 1995 when a scandal broke about a skin flick allegedly sent to Templo Juan's minister and founder. The Assemblies stepped in and strongly suggested the minister retire. He complied, but the majority of the congregation bristled at what felt like meddling by the Assemblies and unfair treatment of its leader. So the church members held an election to determine whether they should separate from the Assemblies. Not only was the election suspended by Assemblies officials, but days later Templo Juan found its bank account frozen, the result of a letter from the Assemblies to the bank alerting them to Templo Juan's internal unrest.

After a few more such incidents, the matter of Templo Juan's ability to determine its own destiny went to court. The Assemblies claimed that the church property belonged to the small group of church members (30 out of 220) who had voted to retain Templo Juan's affiliation with the Assemblies. Templo Juan argued that it was a sovereign entity that could choose to break its ties with the Assemblies at any time.

The court system, never comfortable with religious cases, boiled the matter down to a question of the Assemblies' structure: hierarchical or congregational. If it was hierarchical, then Templo Juan could not just up and decide to renounce the Assemblies. It could not decide on its own who its minister should be. And its property would ultimately belong to the Assemblies.

If the Assemblies was deemed to be a congregationally structured organization, then Templo Juan was autonomous and free to decide who its leader was and whether it wanted to associate with the Assemblies any longer.

"If this had been the Catholic Church, this never would have happened, because they're very rigid top-to-bottom," says Bill Clayton, Templo Juan's attorney. "But in saying it was congregational, [Superior Court Judge William Elfving] said Templo Juan has sovereignty. He says they were welcomed into a cooperative fellowship. The documents linking Templo Juan to the Assemblies are replete with the ideas of autonomy and self-government."

The members of Templo Juan have had their fill of documents and 50-cent words. All they know is that they have their church back and their minister is preaching on Sunday mornings again. Last Sunday they held a potluck after service to celebrate their victory--and the cessation of the endless litigation. Says Santiago, "We're just so happy it's over."

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From the April 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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