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Conflict Management — Part 4

Church Discipline And The Law

By Bryan H. Sanders

For the third time you have heard a rumor about one of your married church members having an extramarital affair with an unmarried church member. Although you have preached the fidelity-in-marriage sermon numerous times from the pulpit with these individuals in the congregation, it is now time for you as the senior pastor to confront the situation before rumors spread throughout the entire congregation. As discipline is considered, the possibility of a lawsuit from the individuals involved arises.

Concern over legal liability for discipline of a church member has caused many churches to stop practicing discipline. This fear is unfounded and is baseless in law. As far back as the landmark case of Watson v. Jones (80 U.S. 679 [1871]), the courts of this country have allowed the church vast flexibility and power to manage and control its business affairs without intrusion or intervention by the government or its courts.

Courts have repeatedly stated that church discipline is a responsibility of the individual church and have demonstrated great restraint when presented with an opportunity to decide matters of discipline. They often refuse to rule at all against a church that might have had a flawed disciplinary procedure or failed to afford the accused proper treatment during the proceedings.

Some churches erroneously look to the case of Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville (775 P. 2d 766, S. Ct. Okla. [1989]) as evidence that a church should refrain from discipline. A close reading of that case, however, upholds the sanctity of church discipline performed under the proper procedure both legally and ecclesiastically.

Unfortunately, one of the difficulties in the area of church discipline lies in the policy of the church for handling discipline matters. Too often the policy is vague and incomplete, if it exists at all.

Most policies refer to Matthew 18:15–17 as the church discipline policy but do not provide a clear direction on how to implement a process of discipline practically. In an era of lawsuits and unprecedented attacks on the authority of the church it is unwise to attempt discipline of an erring member without having the proper structure in place to protect the church from potential retaliatory lawsuits by the disciplined member.

From my forthcoming Legal Primer on Church Discipline, coauthored by Dr. Wyatt McDowell, the following initial steps should be considered when implementing a disciplinary policy or revising an existing policy for your church.

Seek The Assistance Of A Competent Professional.

Any policy should be reviewed by an attorney who is familiar with the law related to church discipline. The organizational documents of the church should be legally consistent with the laws of your state and include a clear expression of church discipline in the bylaws of the church. Of paramount importance is the incorporation of member discipline in the tenets of faith for the church. If discipline is recorded as a doctrine of the church, the courts will be slow to review the disciplinary action of the church as it relates to the theology of the church.

Conduct Regular And Consistent Training In Church Discipline.

Church discipline should be an integral component of the church member’s orientation, beginning with a “new members training class.” Thereafter, routine and consistent teaching and preaching on discipleship and discipline should be conducted from the pulpit and in Sunday school classes. For discipline to be legally imposed, the courts have made it clear that all membership should be aware of the policy and voluntarily submit to the jurisdiction of the church.

Afford Discipline The Same Stature As Other Tenets Of The Church.

Church discipline should be as important to the church as other church doctrines. Discipline should be implemented as part of the overall discipleship program. What are considered by many to be the negative aspects of discipline (confrontation and disfellowship, for example) can become positive when considered in an overall light of discipleship. Churches that have a healthy policy of discipline provide members with a structure for their faith rather than the “anything goes” mentality in society today.

Be Consistent In The Application Of Discipline.

Courts require a showing of consistency and evenhanded treatment when members of a church are being disciplined for the same transgressions under like or similar circumstances. There should be no significant difference in the character of the discipline from one church member to the other.

Consider Forming A Discipline Committee In The Church.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul asked for wise men within the church to judge among the brethren. While selection of such members must be done with utmost care, consideration should be given to the formation of a panel that could assist in the investigation and execution of discipline. This is an option that many pastors may not want to consider initially, but it could be a protection from a claim of bias by a member under discipline. Obviously, panel members would have to meet strict scriptural standards and receive training in conflict resolution as well as the proper procedures for discipline within the bounds of the law.

Although the law has become part of church discipline procedures, it is important to recognize that the church should continue discipline to maintain the spiritual health of the church. An undisciplined church is much like a home with undisciplined children. Would most people want to stay long at a church that is undisciplined?

—Bryan H. Sanders, j.d., is associate professor of government and legal studies at Evangel University, Springfield, Missouri.

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