Dangers in Defining Church Membership

Just imagine, the head pastor of your church resigns unexpectedly with no clear successor.  The elders form a committee to select a new head pastor.  When this choice is rejected by some members they file a lawsuit in the local civil court.

Could this really happen??

That is exactly what happened in Houston, Texas at Christian Faith Missionary Baptist Church.  In response, the judge called a meeting of the church membership to allow them to vote on committee members.  When all “members” showed up, the judge decided she should instead have a formal hearing and issued an order requiring the parties to be in court in the next week.

Does this dispute really belong in a civil courtroom?  On December 12, 2012, a Louisiana court ruled that a trial court has jurisdiction, i.e., the legal power to analyze a church’s articles of incorporation and to determine the criteria for church membership.  Warner v. Collins, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 6218173 (La.App. 4 Cir. 2012).

So what should a church do?  The simple answer is to amend your Church articles of

incorporation & bylaws to place the dispute beyond outside the jurisdiction of the civil courts.  A court’s jurisdiction can be eliminated through a concept called church autonomy doctrineThis doctrine prohibits civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance, and polity. Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116-17, 73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120 (1952).  In other words, if a court has to read Scripture or interpret a statement of faith, the court will automatically throw out the lawsuit.

Keeping your church out of court is not only good for your health, it’s Scriptural.  And the best method for implementing the church autonomy doctrine is to re-write the church bylaws to eliminate “statutory members”.  Instead of relying on the legal definition of corporate membership, the church’s bylaws should define members as “Scriptural” or “Spiritual Members”.

Legal assistance is highly recommended in performing this drafting!

Scriptural Members Corporate Members
  • Defined by Scripture
  • Defined by A.R.S. § 10-2001 et seq.
  • Rights defined by Scripture
  • Right to review corporate records
  • Right to call a meeting of the members
  • Right to call a vote of the members
  • Right to review financial records
  • No ability to sue
  • Ability to sue the church for violating member’s rights

The bottom line:  Personally confirm what rights your church’s bylaws give to it “members”.  If you want to avoid a secular court and judge, update those bylaws so that membership is defined by Scriptures and NOT by Arizona’s Corporate Code as interpreted by a judge/jury which does not share your faith!

Ridenour Hienton & Lewis can help you with the analysis.

Contact Bob at rbrown@rhlfirm.com and let them know Gary Kinnaman sent you.

(602) 744-5748

By Robert Erven Brown, Esq. with Matthew Mason, Esq.
Ridenour Hienton & Lewis, PLLC 
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