The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment prohibits courts from hearing matters based on religious doctrine or polity. Many evangelical churches, most of which are congregational even though they may also be denominational, incorporate into church governance documents such as bylaws contract terms that are more or less quotations of Scripture. Internal church dispute resolution often is procedurally described in bylaws by quotation, more or less, of Matthew 18.

In Adkison v Williams, Slip Op. (Ohio App. 2019), the trial court held that claims to membership in the church by the Plaintiffs were outside judicial review by virtue of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The internal dispute resolution clause in the bylaws was more or less cloned from Matthew 18. The appellate court noted that the bylaws of the church were contractual and that a church did not have “unbridled” freedom to disregard them. But, the particular dispute involved the application of the dispute resolution clause inspired by Matthew 18 which the trial court and the appellate court were unwilling to interpret or enforce. The Plaintiffs alleged the church leadership terminated their membership and when a dispute arose, did not submit the dispute to the congregation for a final vote. The interpretation required was whether in Matthew 18 the requirement of congregational submission was or was not required or automatic, or whether that step may be left to the discretion of leadership. Both courts declined to make the interpretation.

Congregational churches should verify their written membership rolls at least annually and purge persons that no longer attend or participate. It is not necessary to give notice of this action nor to explain to anyone why it is being undertaken, but it is helpful to record the action in minutes of the governing board. Such membership rolls will, in a controversy, be useful to identify who can actually vote and who can be elected to church leadership. Routine membership roll purges should not be confused with disciplinary membership terminations. Disciplinary membership terminations should be documented in the minutes of the governing board, too. Especially regarding disciplinary membership terminations church security personnel should be notified of the action so that they may observe a trespasser until official law enforcement can arrive to address any problem.

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