Legal Issues surrounding Church Discipline

If you’re considering removing or expelling a church member, you should consult an attorney.

Here’s why: careless removal can draw lawsuits. Courts have held churches and individuals liable for defamation, and other legal wrongs, related to the process of church discipline.

a discipline revival

Churches can admit and remove members. But in the past few decades, actual removal became rare.

Today, there is a growing belief that membership requirements produce involved members. Membership classes, interviews with church leaders, and attendance requirements are common. Failing to meet those requirements can result in discipline or removal.

Discipline is an old practice, but this is a new legal environment. When discipline was last common, courts refused to hear most cases involving church membership. With rare exceptions, judges could defer to the decisions of church leaders. No matter what the documents said, most courts found a removal correct if the leaders decided it was correct.

Today, most states have dropped any special rules for interpreting church documents. The First Amendment still prevents lawsuits about purely religious questions, but courts will interpret church documents like other legal documents. If there is a dispute about legal rights, judges will apply legal rules, even to church constitutions and bylaws.

clear documents are needed

So, today’s church documents must have clear provisions about discipline. Is it a matter of congregational vote? A simple majority of elders? Can the pastor extend “the hand of fellowship,” and withdraw it, too? Can members resign and short-circuit the process? Too often, church documents are fuzzy on these questions.

Indeed, Robert’s Rules once said discipline was rare, and any extra rules would clutter the bylaws. That recommendation made sense when courts refused to judge the process of removal.

Today, the unintended consequences of remaining silent could hurt your church.

For example, the Robert’s Rules process for removal is a “trial” by other members. It’s almost like impeaching a government official. Few churches would choose that kind of process for Biblical discipline. But that may be the court-required process, if you’ve adopted Robert’s Rules without modification.

If your documents are not clear, we would be glad to help. We can document your church’s process, and help avoid future disagreement.

Call us at 816.398.8305.