When is a home Bible study a church?

America was founded with a primary motivation for the freedom to worship without government regulations. (Unlike some, I am not convinced that America was intended to be a “Christian nation” or founded on “Judeo-Christian principles,” though Christian influence was certainly part of the mix. What is clear to me is religious freedom that guarantees the right to worship.)

Freedom of religion is so important that it is the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Part of that 1st amendment gets a ton of visibility and buzz, the part about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The other part not as much, the part about the freedom of assembly. Both are just as important! The text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

San Juan Capistrano, the city where I work, has cited a home gathering for violating its ordinances. The Fromm’s home hosts a Bible study, which happens to have met on Sunday mornings. I’ve been there a few times. It’s a quiet and contemplative time, not disruptive to the neighborhood.

Their Municipal Code, Section 9-3.301 requires a conditional use permit when a meeting is held in a residential district by “Religious, fraternal, or nonprofit organizations,” and that “includes churches, temples, synagogues, monasteries, religious retreats, and other places of religious worship and other fraternal and community service organizations.”

You’d think that enforcing such laws should be done with utmost caution for its proximity to the 1st Amendment. Verify the details before acting.

San Juan Capistrano decided to enforce this ordinance on the Fromm’s, issuing 2 citations totaling $300 to date. And, the news about the Fromms have spread across mainstream media (msm) and the blogosphere. Sure, zoning for residential areas may have been designed to prevent noise and traffic problems. But that wasn’t the infraction cited. Many neighbors have written letters of support, denying they were disturbed by the presence of the Bible study.

But, the Fromm’s gathering is not a church or nonprofit organization. Their gathering is a group Bible study. Fromms have had Bible study gatherings in their home for years, some larger, some smaller. The larger ones may number like 20 or even 50. They have no intention to establish a church. The latest updates are being posted at the chuckfromm.net blog and Facebook page. [update: short list of links to media coverage, unabridged list]

The question: when a group of people peaceably assemble for whatever, religious or fraternal or non-profit, when is that gathering deemed too large to be personal and requiring a permit and/or non-profit organization? When does a home Bible study become too large and should become a church? And is it okay for a group to decline from setting up a government-sanctioned non-profit organization? Does the government determine what group is a church or isn’t a church? For those with religious convictions, theology is what determines what is or isn’t a church. And theology is not something government wants to get involved in.

[disclosure: I work with Chuck Fromm and Worship Leader magazine]

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3 Responses

  1. The simplest (and perhaps best) definition I’ve heard of a church is, “when the people of God are being his hands and feet to their sphere of influence – it’s a church.”
    I would personally hope that anytime Followers of the Way are coming together – church is happening. That may not be the case (I know it’s not always the case for me) but that would be my hope.
    I think the city should back away from whether or not a group gathering is considered a church or not and focus on whether or not groups are allowed to assemble for any reason.
    If they want to block one segment of the population from meeting – they should block all segments of the population (which seems to be against the right to assemble peacefully).
    So – I personally wouldn’t argue that you are or are not a church – I would argue that you have the right to peacefully assemble.

  2. djchuang says:

    @Jonathan, thanks for the thoughtful comment. This whole incident raises so many questions, really, to the fundamental core of what it means to be an American. And, also, what it means to be a church and when does a church become a state entity that’s governed by the state as a non-profit organization.

    Yes, theologically, as you’ve commented, the simple definition of church is where “the people of God are being his hands and feet to their sphere of influence.” That is a theological and spiritual category.

    Where it does get confusing for the average person on the street, is that “church” is also used to refer to a religious non-profit organization. So which is it? Is church the non-profit organization subject to the zoning ordinances as stated?

    A quick resolution would be to erase the ordinance, and allow people to peaceably assemble. Return the $ fined, and apologize big time. Case closed.

  3. @DJ – yeah I agree completely.

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