SOVEREIGN CHURCHES

While in recent months, especially in Oklahoma, there has been considerable angst regarding the scope of the sovereignty of tribal governments, virtually the same type of issue arises with regard to denominational authority.  Indeed, some denominations resolve certain disputes by convening a court.  It may be called an “Ecclesiastical Council” rather than called a court, or by some other name, but nonetheless it is a court.

In Church of God in Christ, Inc. v L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., Slip Op. (Tenn. App. 2020), the appellate court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the denomination.  The local church’s long time pastor died.  He was succeeded for a couple of years by a “Jurisdictional Bishop” that appointed himself as pastor.  However, the successor died.  For a time, the position of “Jurisdictional Bishop” remained vacant and so, too, as a result did the pastorate of the local church.  Tiring of the circumstances, the local church in a congregational vote attempted to terminate its “jurisdiction” membership and transfer to another denominational jurisdiction.  However, the original denominational jurisdiction appointed a “Jurisdictional Bishop” and he in turned appointed himself pastor of the local church.  The faction of the local church that led the attempt to change denominational jurisdictional membership refused to relinquish control of the local church property or assets to the “Jurisdictional Bishop” appointed as pastor.  To resolve the dispute with the local church, the denomination convened an “Ecclesiastical Council” to decide the matter.  The council affirmed the appointment of the “Jurisdictional Bishop” as local church pastor and excommunicated the dissenting faction.  The local church led by the dissenters resisted and the lawsuit was filed to enforce the decision of the denomination.  The courts refused to review the “Ecclesiastical Council’s” decision, treated it as binding and worthy of deference, and granted judgment to the denomination.

The governing documents of the denomination and the local church made ecclesiastical inquiries unnecessary.  Once the denomination established its authority to select the pastor, its authority to hold the local church property in trust, and its authority to excommunicate the dissenters, the denominational decision was treated deferentially.  To avoid such an outcome, the local church should have obtained a documented “acceptance” from the denominational jurisdiction to which it tried to transfer by congregational vote.  Further, the acquiescence of the losing denominational jurisdiction should have been negotiated.  Both efforts would have been cheaper than litigation and more likely to be successful.

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