In jurisdictions that decide church property issues under the Neutral Principles of Law Doctrine, the difficult question is for a court to determine which organizational documents are binding authority on the local church.  For example, denominational handbooks, like employee handbooks, might in some instances create a contractual commitment for member churches.

In Presbytery of St. Andrew v First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkville, Miss., Slip Op., (Miss. 2018, en banc), the Mississippi Supreme Court collided with the issue and the majority did not view the denominational handbook as a governing authority sufficient to impose a trust on the property of the local church while the dissent did.  The majority relied on an “opt out” clause in the Constitution of the denomination which the dissent considered as adopted too late in time to avoid the binding effect of the denominational handbook.  In response to the “opt out” provision, the local church opted out and did not include property reversionary clauses in property deeds or the local church bylaws or constitution.

Denominations that desire to govern through a handbook (regardless of what it is called), should update it regularly and the local churches asked to ratify it.  Ratification once a decade would likely be sufficient.  Failure to ratify should be explicitly prohibited as a ground for disobedience.  Reversionary provisions should be in all organizational documents and the denominational handbook and required in all local church organizational documents and property deeds for denominations that intend to use.  Everywhere or nowhere.

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