Close, But No Cigar: Dishonest and Unlearned Use of the Church Common Law Trust, With Spotlight on the Ecclesiastical Law Center

* Jerald Finney
Copyright © March 26, 2020

Numerous unlearned pastors and “ministries” advise churches on the matter of organizing as churches under Christ and Christ alone as opposed to legal organizations such as corporations, corporations sole, charitable trusts, unincorporated associations, and Internal Revenue Code §§ 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(1)(A) tax exempt organizations. This article will spotlight one such ministry, the Ecclesiastical Law Center.

The Ecclesiastical Law Center was founded by Robin Wright. Brother Wright was a member of the Indianapolis Baptist Temple in the 1980s. Attorney Al Cunningham helped churches, including IBT where he spent a lot of time, reorganize under Christ, as opposed to legally organizing under man’s law. During that time, Robin Wright picked Attorney Cunningham’s brain on the use of the common law trust by churches.

Brother Wright left IBT and became pastor of a church. He also founded the Ecclesiastical Law Center. He modified the principles he had learned from Attorney Cunningham, as the ELC began to help churches organize. The ELC claimed to have come up with a Biblical as opposed to a legal solution for church organization. Actually, the concept, if correct in the details, is Biblical; but neither Wright, his close confidant Ben Townsend, or the ELC originated the concept, nor did they correctly implement it and related matters.

The concept is that of the common law trust, proper effectuation of which corresponds with Bible principle. See,  How a Church Can Organize to Remain a New Testament Church (Holding Property In Trust For God Is A Scriptural Principle Recognized by American Law). A church can establish a relationship with property whereby a person holds and manages property, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the true owner of the property, the Lord Jesus Christ. A proper church common law trust relationship corresponds with New Testament Church doctrine.

Ben Townsend was a friend of Robin Wright at IBT. He also left IBT and remained a close associate of Wright. He co-authored books and articles dealing with the trust and other church matters with Wright. When Robin Wright passed away, Townsend took over the ELC.

The ELC methodology is close to being correct. Close but no cigar. Not being learned in legal matters, the ELC misleads pastors, churches and other believers. See, An analysis of Ecclesiastical Law Center Attacks against the Ordinary Trust Recommended by this Old Paths Baptist Church “Separation of Church and State Law Ministry (online booklet which explains some of falsehoods of the ELC).

The ELC advises churches to hold real estate in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The ELC method places churches in the position of legal entities since ELC churches hold the property through a trustee or trustees. The church property is to be managed by persons or a person solely for the benefit of the true owner of the property, the Lord Jesus Christ. See, ibid. This type of church legal status does not, of course, come with all the organizational requirements as does corporate status, charitable trust status, or federal tax exempt status; but it does make the church a legal entity which is under the jurisdiction of civil government courts for some purposes.

An ELC church or trust does not and cannot get a bank account. The ELC, by admission in their own writings, are establishing a common law trust. They do so without a writing executed by the church. ELC churches operate in cash. The ELC ignorantly advises that putting the trust relationship into a written declaration will get a church into trouble. In fact, no church has ever gotten into trouble because of a properly drafted, executed, and practiced Declaration of Trust and associated documents in spite of the fictitious reports published by the ELC. Furthermore, it is wise to properly draft and execute trust documents. See, How a Church Can Organize to Remain a New Testament Church (Holding Property In Trust For God Is A Scriptural Principle Recognized by American Law).

The ELC constantly disseminates false information concerning the use of documents to establish the church common law trust. An analysis of Ecclesiastical Law Center Attacks against the Ordinary Trust Recommended by this Old Paths Baptist Church “Separation of Church and State Law Ministry examines some, but not nearly all, of their uneducated and false attacks.

The Churches under Christ ministry just aided a church which had obtained real estate some years ago, with the help of the ELC, in the name of “The Lord Jesus Christ with the [Name of Church] (Church) as Deacons of His Property.” The trustee of the trust saw the flaws with the methods of the ELC. He desired to open a trust bank account. He called this ministry. The trustee talked many hours with this ministry, studied materials published by this ministry, and answered Questionnaires 1 and 2. The ministry explained to him many of the problems with and misconceptions of the Townsend/ELC methodology. The church executed trust documents and is in the process of deeding the property to the trust. The property, which will be deeded to the trust and placed in the trust estate, is still owned by the Lord Jesus Christ, as in the present deed; but the property in the trust estate is not “church” property which is held by the trustee for the church. Once the property is placed in the trust estate under the new arrangement, it is no longer “church” property. The next step will be to open a bank account.

Opening a property constituted common law trust bank account in no way compromises the position of the church as a church under Christ alone or the status of the common law trust as a fiduciary relationship with property only, not a legal entity (organization) of any kind.

Churches should be diligent as they seek to glorify the Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. This requires dedicated study, and consultation with those who love the Lord and do their homework before diving into God’s preeminent matters.