EXCOMMUNICATION LITIGATION

Because churches are long suffering, and generally very slow to anger, they often do not resort to actual “official” excommunication.  Indeed, churches tend to wait too long to impose discipline and suffer from it.  Social and peer pressure is more often used and generally counsels the “accused” toward departure from membership and attendance.  Nevertheless, excommunication is a church discipline tool that is used.

In Svendsen v Lobb, Slip Op. (Minn. App. 2022), the Plaintiff alleged he was defamed “sufficiently to identify [Plaintiff] as a person that needed to be excommunicated and barred from attending any [church] services.”  The appellate opinion comes no closer to indicating Plaintiff was “officially” excommunicated or rather whether Plaintiff was by the statements of other church leaders counseled to depart from membership and attendance.  Because the grounds for excommunication are generally “apostasy,” sexual misconduct, “heresy” or “murder,” inquiry into ecclesiastical doctrines and interpretations would be inevitable.  Further, most courts, and Minnesota is among them, will not hear church membership disputes.  The trial court dismissed the case on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds and the appellate court affirmed.

While the reported case does not state what was said or to whom, or under the circumstances, such as a public assembly, it is generally not a good idea to conduct excommunications in public.  If it must be done by congregational vote, it should be in a closed members only congregational meeting.  Counselling someone out of a church should be done “privately” with only two or more witnesses, usually all church leadership that understand the need for confidentiality, and only announced in the aforementioned congregational meetings as required.

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