In many posts we have reported court opinions that resolved disputes by using only the denominational or local church governance documents. However, there may be some disputes that cannot be resolved using Neutral Principles of Law to enforce the governance documents. Membership verification may be one of those.
In Ceglar v Christ’s Harbor Church, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 2020) the trial court held verifying the 25 plaintiffs were actually church members required ecclesiastical determinations the Court was prohibited, and unwilling, to make. The appellate court affirmed and the case was dismissed. The newly hired pastor was accused of “inappropriate behavior and misconduct” by two female members. A faction of the membership demanded a congregational meeting to determine the pastor’s employment fate, but the church board never convened the meeting. Six months later the lawsuit followed. The membership secretary affirmed the plaintiffs were on the church membership rolls but a church board member testified the plaintiffs were for the most part expunged from the membership rolls after ninety days of non-attendance. The ninety-day rule was not in the governance documents but was put forth as an interpretation of the governance documents membership clause. To resolve whether listing on the membership roll or a ninety-day membership cancellation was dispositive, the Court held, would require an ecclesiastical determination by the Court.
Purging membership rolls every ninety days seems unworkable in a volunteer organization like a church and somewhat contrary to the inclusiveness most churches want to offer. Nevertheless, if that is the “rule,” the purge process should be carried out in a disciplined manner. Annual membership roll “clean up” is the preferred practice so that the qualified voters in congregational meetings can be identified and counted. The court was completely silent on whether the church board investigated or whether the allegations against the pastor were determined “not credible.”
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.
The word “excommunication” labels a procedure by which an ecclesiastical authority under canon law terminates the membership, affiliation or fellowship of someone formerly welcome to those relationships. See, Broderick, Ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (Nelson, 1987) at 204. Evangelical churches do not have “excommunication” although they may use the word to describe their own procedure for terminating membership typically for disciplinary reasons. More often, whether in ecumenical or evangelical churches, sometimes pestilential people are simply asked to leave and not return to a particular congregation rather than “excommunicated” from the faith. Sometimes in incipient church splits, one side will try to boot out the opposition.
In Lippard v Diamond Hill Baptist Church, Slip Op. (NC App. 2018), the Plaintiffs’ membership in the church was terminated by a congregational vote. The Plaintiffs claimed the vote never really happened and was not conducted, it if happened at all, according to the bylaws of the church. The trial court dismissed the case because in North Carolina, there are clear judicial pronouncements that membership is a “core ecclesiastical matter.” The Court of Appeals affirmed. While for many purposes the bylaws might be matters for application of neutral principles of law, membership qualification or disqualification pursuant to bylaws would not, the Court concluded, be free of ecclesiastical considerations.
Churches should annually recertify their official membership rolls without fail by a vote of their governing board recorded in the board’s minutes. If a church decides that termination of membership is the only recourse for disciplinary or other important reasons, the church should decisively and quickly implement the termination. Dithering about such things, especially in public meetings, is an invitation to litigation.