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Conflict Management — Part 5

Church Membership — Who Needs It?

By Bryan H. Sanders

What would you do if the bankruptcy court in your state told you that your church had to return $13,450 a couple had tithed to the church because the couple had to file for bankruptcy and the creditors wanted the money? Think it would never happen? Guess again.

That is exactly what happened to the Crystal Evangelical Free Church of New Hope, Minnesota. At the writing of this article the case is in the appeals process, but it raises a question regarding church membership. One of the arguments raised in the court hearing was that nothing of value was provided in exchange for the tithe paid by the couple.

Beyond the freedom of religion issue presented in this case is the issue of what church members can expect when they sign the membership card to join a church. Did this couple receive anything in exchange for their tithe? More importantly, can the church prove that the couple received something of value in exchange for their tithe? The questions may be answered affirmatively if a church is able to define its standards for membership.

Most churches will admit members if they profess faith in Christ and agree to the tenets of faith and doctrine of the church. An agreement is usually made to abide by the rules that govern the church. However, sometimes the standards for membership are vaguely defined. If you were to ask members of most congregations what it means for them to be members of a church, many would not even be able to explain what their rights or responsibilities are. Some might simply say they are members because they attend a particular church.

Vaguely defined membership standards can create difficulty not only when it comes time to vote on a matter at a church business meeting or when a member files for bankruptcy protection, but it also can create difficulty for the practice of church discipline and conflict resolution among the membership. The best way to protect the church is to define the rights and responsibilities of the church member in written governance documents and then communicate these to the members before they sign membership cards.

One of the easiest ways to document that a member has read, understood, and agreed to the church doctrine and practice is to hold church membership classes that explain the church’s vision as well as the requirements for membership. During the class the prospective members should be given a membership manual that includes written copies of the governing documents as well as any other written requirements for church membership, including the conflict resolution and discipline policy for the church.

The membership manual serves as clear evidence that the member received and is aware of the obligations of membership. Opportunity for discussion of the church policies should be given to all prospective members, and any questions should be answered to each member’s satisfaction.

When the membership class concludes, all new members should sign a membership card that includes, among other things, that the member has read the governance documents of the church and agrees to abide by the standards governing church membership. While courts are slow to become involved in church conflicts, the one area of review for the secular court is whether or not a member was aware of the provisions of the church-governing documents and whether those written procedures were followed as written. Membership classes would be strong evidence that a church clearly identified its doctrine and practices to the members of the congregation.

For the purposes of church discipline, at least, it is important to keep a current and accurate roll of active members. The courts have made it clear that only members of a church may be disciplined. Although it is possible for a member to resign from a church, that resignation does not necessarily mean a church is unable to take disciplinary action. If the membership card signed by the member waives the right to resign from the church while under discipline, then the church would be able to continue discipline even if the member attempted to resign — as long as the member had signed the waiver with knowledge of what exactly was being signed. What does a member receive from joining a church? That depends on the individual church. As we continue to see the courts’ willingness to intervene in church affairs, the church must recognize the need to communicate its expectations clearly to the members and for the members to communicate to church leadership what they expect.

The law abhors arbitrariness in applying rules and regulations among individuals and will become involved when it appears that a member is not receiving fair treatment. The courts are not in the business of reviewing tenets of faith or doctrine and will usually allow a church wide latitude in developing membership standards. Courts will, however, be more willing to hear a case that involves civil, contract, or property rights matters. Some courts have been willing to find that a membership is a property right and been willing to become involved in what could be deemed ecclesiastical matters.

Do your people know what they receive in return for their willingness to become members of your church? Do you have in writing what you expect from your members? Would you be able to keep a member’s tithe money if bankruptcy is declared?

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

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