Usually, there is no doubt about whether a local church submitted to denominational authority because the governing documents, including the church bylaws or constitution, and property deeds reserve submission to the denominational authority. A court need not look beyond these documents. These documents are reviewable by a court applying Neutral Principles of Law. The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine is rarely implicated.
In Korean New Life Methodist Church v Korean Methodist Church, 2020 COA 20 (Colo. App. 2020), the trial court held that church governing documents did not recite any submission to the denomination. The denomination urged that it was the intent of the church to submit to the denominational authority. The denomination produced the testimony of a founding board member and a record of financial payments over many years. The church characterized the nominal payments as donations and submitted the testimony of the founding pastor alleging there was no intent to submit. The trial court was affirmed.
Denominational authorities should not assume that churches are member congregations. The governing documents of the church either recite submission of the church to the denomination or do not. Churches that do not wish to submit should document that denominational interactions are not submissions to denominational authority. Financial gifts should likewise be carefully labeled as donations and not payment of dues or other indicia of membership.