CHURCH MEMBERSHIP TERMINATION

While the title may read like an attempt to define excommunication in secular terms it seems probable that excommunication refers to a church disciplinary action intended to have spiritual ramifications or consequences. However, termination of church membership might not always be designed or intended to have spiritual ramifications or consequences. Termination of church membership might also be designed or intended only for church governance issues such as resolution of a church split.

In Adkison v Williams, 2019 Ohio 4289 (Ohio App., 2019), thirty-one church members were terminated as church members. The opinion does not recite that the intent was excommunication. Rather, the implication seems to be that to restore harmony or order these members were terminated because of disparate but irreconcilable church governance views. The former church members sued claiming that the membership termination violated the church bylaws. The former members claimed the Court could apply Neutral Principles to determine whether the membership terminations were procedurally consistent with the bylaws. The trial court dismissed the case holding that the church membership terminations were unreviewable pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The appellate court affirmed. The appellate court noted the church was a congregational church that elected its leadership by congregational vote. Nevertheless, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that the membership question presented a question of “internal church governance.” The appellate court concluded that a question of “internal church governance” was presented because the final step in the membership termination process mandated by the bylaws was the dispute resolution process set forth in Matthew 18:15-17. Court review of the process necessarily would require court interpretation of the scriptural requirements leading to a collision with the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.

Church governance issues, especially those arising from a church split, will not generally be susceptible to secular court resolution. Attempts to characterize church governance issues as contract disputes or corporate law disputes will not likely be successful unless the contract or corporate law issue is the real nexus of the dispute. Termination of church membership to restore harmony or order will likely come under court review only when the church membership records are non-existent or patently unreliable, when congregational votes have not been conducted or cannot be conducted to determine the authenticity of the appointment of church leadership, and when actual property ownership or control issues result.

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