In most cases, the prohibition of court involvement in internal church issues is good for the court and good for the church. That is the fundamental motive behind the 1st Amendment spawned ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. However, because generally courts default to deciding controversies brought before them, even the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine will usually give way to an internal church battle that “spills out into the street.” A court will often intervene until order is restored.
In Church of God in Christ, Inc. v L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., Slip. Op. (Tenn. App. 2016), the trial court dismissed the case and the court of appeals affirmed. The Church of God in Christ, Inc. was held to be a hierarchical or connectional denomination and the affiliated church in question was held to be one of its affiliated churches. The founding Pastor of the church died and the presiding bishop installed a “speaker – rotation” system to prevent “dissension among those vying” to become the new Pastor. But, two years later the presiding bishop died and a new bishop was appointed. The new bishop had the authority to appoint a new Pastor and appointed himself.
But, when the new bishop in the role as the new Pastor tried to assume control of the church assets he was threatened and blocked by local church members. The opinion does not explain why this occurred. The denomination filed a lawsuit to regain control of the church property. Some of the local church members tried to initiate the process to depart from the denomination but did not complete the process and the denomination excommunicated some of the members. However, because the church had not withdrawn from the denomination, and the denomination had not declared the church withdrawn (or excommunicated), the courts determined the dispute was internal and further court intervention was barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The court would not declare the denomination’s rights to the assets of the affiliated church and the court would not confirm the new bishop as the new Pastor pursuant to the denomination’s governing documents.
The lesson that seems to emerge is that denominational authority over assets or personnel can only be enforced by a court if the denomination decisively separates the local church as a rogue (or, though not applicable in this case, separates from the rogue Pastor) consistent with the denomination’s governing documents. The courts will not settle mere squabbles between personalities. The courts will not settle down unruly members.