Court Involvement In Church Discipline


By: Jay Quine

This article, which is intended to help churches overcome the fear of legal retaliation for disciplining an errant member, begins by examining the biblical basis for church discipline. Church discipline is not merely an option; Scripture requires it. It has three purposes: to restore the sinner, to keep the church pure, and to deter others from committing similar sins.

As to what behaviors should be disciplined. Jesus spoke only in general terms. Paul listed a number of specific things the church should deal with, including disorderly behavior, slothfulness, divisiveness, idolatry, drunkenness, and sexual immorality. However, he did not specify how serious or frequent the sin had to be before discipline was applied. This is left up to the local congregation. To avoid legal complications such determinations must never be made capriciously or for wrong motives.

Jesus gave four steps in the disciplinary process. (1) Discipline should begin with a private rebuke, a gentle confrontation (not public exposure) intended to turn the person from his sin. (2) If the first meeting does not result in repentance, a group is to go to the person privately to appeal for a change of heart. (3) The next step, which is taken only if the first two warnings are not heeded, is to summon the individual to a public hearing before the congregation.

(4) Finally, as a last resort, the ship. Sometimes called ex-communication, this means that he is no longer a member of the assembly, and the other members withdraw from associating with him.

It is essential that church leaders explain these steps and how they operate to every church member. In the event of a lawsuit, they should be able to prove that the offended party was aware of the scriptural mandate and procedures for church discipline.

Litigation arising out of church discipline situations is usually based on three legal theories.

(1) Invasion of privacy can be charged when leaders have taken the matter before the congregation. To fit the legal definition of invasion of privacy, the plaintiff must prove four things: (a) there was a public revelation of (b) private information that was (c) highly offensive to a reasonable person but that was (d) of no legitimate concern to the public. The first two elements are relatively easy to establish. Whether the facts disclosed were highly offensive is a subjective determination that must take into account the nature of the information and the environment in which it was made known. The public’s concern in the matter is also a judgment call that must be made on a case-by-case basis.

A church has two possible defenses against this charge. The first is that not all four legal requirements for invasion of privacy have been met. The second approach is to argue that the public hearing was “privileged communication.” A general legal rule applying to religious associations (churches) is that members may discuss among themselves the conduct of a member or potential member as it relates to that person’s qualification for membership in the group. This privilege is limited in that it cannot be motivated by secular purpose or by a desire for personal vengeance.

(2) Outrage is a relatively new legal theory that a plaintiff may appeal to. As a tort, outrage refers to “extreme and outrageous conduct” which “intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress.” To fit this definition the behavior must go beyond mere insults, threats, or irritations. The best defense against this charge is for the church to make sure that everything done in each step of the disciplinary process is reasonable.

(3) A church may be accused of defamation. Whether classified as libel or slander, defamatory communication is that which damages the reputation of the individual, lowers the community’s respect for him, or makes others not want to associate with him. Truth is an absolute defense against this claim. No matter what is made public, it cannot be held to be defamatory if it is true. However, the defense is limited by the fact that there must be no evidence of malice.

In the past one of the defenses a church could use was the fact that the church member had given consent to its rules by voluntarily becoming a member. There are some problems with this defense nowadays because some courts have ruled that because consent is given by the member, the member may also withdraw that consent. First Amendment defenses can also come into play in church discipline cases. Applying the “free exercise” clause, one court ruled that a defendant’s statements made in a sermon could not be considered defamatory. Another case relied on the “establishment clause” to rule that a church disfellowshipping a member was not an unconstitutional act since it was not “a threat to public safety, peace, and order.”

Church leaders should be aware of these defenses and their limitations so they can implement the process of church discipline in a manner consistent with Scripture and also avoid legal liability.

(The above material was taken from Current Thought and Trends.)

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