CHURCH MEMBERSHIP LITIGATION

The word “excommunication” labels a procedure by which an ecclesiastical authority under canon law terminates the membership, affiliation or fellowship of someone formerly welcome to those relationships. See, Broderick, Ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (Nelson, 1987) at 204. Evangelical churches do not have “excommunication” although they may use the word to describe their own procedure for terminating membership typically for disciplinary reasons. More often, whether in ecumenical or evangelical churches, sometimes pestilential people are simply asked to leave and not return to a particular congregation rather than “excommunicated” from the faith. Sometimes in incipient church splits, one side will try to boot out the opposition.

In Lippard v Diamond Hill Baptist Church, Slip Op. (NC App. 2018), the Plaintiffs’ membership in the church was terminated by a congregational vote. The Plaintiffs claimed the vote never really happened and was not conducted, it if happened at all, according to the bylaws of the church. The trial court dismissed the case because in North Carolina, there are clear judicial pronouncements that membership is a “core ecclesiastical matter.” The Court of Appeals affirmed. While for many purposes the bylaws might be matters for application of neutral principles of law, membership qualification or disqualification pursuant to bylaws would not, the Court concluded, be free of ecclesiastical considerations.

Churches should annually recertify their official membership rolls without fail by a vote of their governing board recorded in the board’s minutes. If a church decides that termination of membership is the only recourse for disciplinary or other important reasons, the church should decisively and quickly implement the termination. Dithering about such things, especially in public meetings, is an invitation to litigation.

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