Yesterday’s news reported that the Commissioner of Charities (COC) is considering to remove eight individuals from their positions in City Harvest Church. This is part of the ongoing saga about church’s fund mismanagement case since last year.
Regardless of the verdict of the trial (which will start in May), from this news I just learnt that, to put it in a blunt way, the government has the power to oust your church leaders. Of course, not that they would do it indiscriminately (not ever, I hope!). This case is such an example that they would probably do it in an extra-ordinary situation, e.g., waiting for a trial. Nevertheless, such power exists, and it is delineated in the Charities Act section 25 (A), which gives the COC the power to suspend or remove trustees, governing board member, officer, agent or employee of a charity from his office or employment and from membership of the charity.
So it does beg some questions on the independence of a charity vis-à-vis the state. Charities must be regulated and I think we do need this Act as this gives the government the power to interfere with a crooked charity. Nevertheless, churches who think that whatever happens in the church must be solved ecclesiastically could have some issues with this Act. I doubt that there is a church who would take such an extreme position, though, as let say if there is a murder in the church, it will make a report to the police anyway, since it is not only a matter of the church but also a criminal case. The church exists not only in its own sphere but also with the civil society and the public at large. But there might be other criminal cases where you choose not to report it to the authorities and just solve it among yourselves, and this is where things become more tricky. What if there someone steals the weekly offering in your church and your church decides to solve it internally? Is it wrong not to report it to the police? Must the government step in as well? Should the church have its own ecclesiastical court like the Sanhedrin or the Sharia court?
For this case, I think the eight individuals should have resigned voluntarily themselves before being told by the COC to step down. It is not an admission of guilt but basically indicates that you will cooperate fully with the state for the entire process. In the meantime, the positions could be filled with interim caretakers and in the end if they are found innocent, they could go back to their original positions immediately. This is not merely a matter of defending your rights, but also about being a good witness, which sometimes requires you to relinquish your rights for the sake of the greater good.