Church Fights: The Harvest Is Plentiful, but the Workers Are… Feuding

Lock the Doors!

In 1902, John L. Dart was the preacher at Morris Street Baptist Church in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina. At a congregational meeting, he was abruptly fired – but then refused to quit preaching.   No, he didn’t take a preaching job at a different church – he just ignored the congregational meeting’s mandate.  Pastor Dart continued to re-enter the church building, sometimes with force and violence, making way to the pulpit and delivering his unwanted Sunday sermons.  Needless to say, Pastor Dart’s actions disrupted the usual exercise of worship at Morris Street Church.  Flabbergasted by Pastor Dart’s unwillingness to go away, Morris Street Church had no idea how to respond.  The Church petitioned the local court for a restraining order.  Uncertain of how to resolve the controversy quickly, the Court ordered the church doors locked until further notice![1]

The legal question before the Court: Whose voice represented the authentic, legal voice of Morris Street Church? Some members of the congregation supported Pastor Dart; other members wanted him fired.

After analyzing the scope and purpose of the congregational meeting and the underlying corporate documents of Morris Street Church, the court ultimately sided with the group that wanted him fired, stating, “we conclude that the defendant was [fired] by a majority vote at the [congregational meeting] of the Morris Street Baptist Church. . . that this action has not been revoked, and [Pastor Dart] has no right to use or interfere with any of the church property.”[2]

Fist Fight!

Harold Alford was the pastor at New Jerusalem Institutional Baptist Church in Dallas County, Texas.  The church had to call the police to keep the peace because its congregational meeting turned into a melee.[3]  In the 1998 case styled Dean v. Alford, the church held a congregational meeting (in violation of its bylaws) because some members wanted to fire the church’s minister, Pastor Harry.  At the close of the meeting, the church ultimately decided not to fire Pastor Harry; however, a faction within the church was so displeased that fistfights broke out!   Armed with the church’s bylaws, the faction tried to forbid Pastor Harry from writing church checks and sought an accounting of church funds.  Astounded by the animosity and violence within the church, the New Jerusalem Church had no idea how to respond.

The church decided to have a second vote determine whether Pastor Harry should keep his job.  The local court had to intervene and ordered a re-vote consistent with the procedures outlined in the bylaws.  To ensure no more fist-fighting, the trial court requested that the local police force gather and tally the vote.  This time, the church voted on the police-supervised, front steps of the building.  By a margin of 87 to 1, Pastor Harry was fired.  Think about that – the church conflict was so severe that the trial judge hired police to supervise the vote.

As these two examples show, church fights can grow so contentious that they break through the four walls of the building, and spill into the halls of justice.  Is your church prepared to respond to arguments over weighty issues?  Has your leadership completed the requisite due diligence to ensure that the church body will be unharmed if questions over authority persist?  As a former vocational minister and a practicing attorney, I’ve had a front row seat to several church conflicts.  Let’s review some practical advice that could prove useful to your church just in case communion becomes conflict or worship becomes war.

Understand Your Church is Not Alone.

Conflict within the Church is not new.  In fact, occasional hostility has surfaced since the first century Christians started meeting together.  When the early church began, the believers lived in harmony; the scene recorded in the 2nd chapter of the Book of Acts reflects that tranquility:

All the believers were together and had everything in common . . . they gave to one another as he had need.[4]

In just a short period of time, the scene of tranquility transitions to the 15th chapter of Acts:

This brought Paul and Barnabus into sharp dispute and debate with them . . . they had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.[5]

Moreover, throughout the history of these United States, churches have divided over everything from doctrine to the firing of a member of the ministry staff or the color of carpet in the worship center.

So, take a deep breath.  Know that as long as people have gathered together for any reason, disagreements invariably occur.  So, how can your church preempt or resolve these disputes?

Understand Thy History.

The Supreme Court of the United States has entertained several cases involving church disputes.  These cases provide counsel for structuring the legal, corporate documents necessary for a church.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Consequently, the Supreme Court’s default constitutional posture is that secular courts should not determine questions of religious doctrine and practice.  Legal commentators have coined the phrase “hands-off” to describe the Court’s default posture.  The “hands-off” legal doctrine means that courts should avoid internal problems of religious bodies, especially when those problems concern matters of theology or determining which faction is more faithful to the group’s theology.  Even so, three important cases provide the hyphenated boundary line for court involvement in church disputes.

Understand these Supreme Court Decisions.

  1. Watson v. Jones: In the late 1860’s, the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church split over its stance on slavery. The conflict made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States. It established a foundational rule for church dispute resolution – “Polity Deference.” Polity Deference means that when churches or denominations have their own religious courts for settling disputes, their ecclesiastical court decisions are to be upheld, or at least accorded a strong amount of deference.  Buttressed by the fear of entangling itself in the granular details of theological controversies, the Supreme Court suggested that civil courts should simply defer to the decisions of the religious authorities.[6] 
  2. United States vs. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church: During the Vietnam War, the Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia fought over the ordination of women, the church’s stance on Vietnam, and other social issues. In the end, two parties wanted control of two properties that were used by the local church. The Supreme Court, through Justice William J. Brennan, advanced the phrase “neutral principles of law,” which became a buzz word for future courts.  Under the neutral principles of law approach, courts can resolve church disputes; however, they can only resolve the conflict by consulting the neutral, un-theological provisions of the church’s corporate documents.[7]
  3. Jones v. Wolf: Similarly, in the late 1970’s the Vineville Presbyterian Church had 164 members that voted to separate from its denominational hierarchy, the Presbyterian Church of the United States. Ninety-four members of that congregation opposed the resolution.

The Supreme Court applied the neutral principles approach and examined the legal documents by only scrutinizing secular, legal principles.  The Court determined that if a church’s relevant corporate documents use religious concepts in provisions relating to the ownership of property, then “the court must defer to the resolution of the doctrinal issue by the authoritative ecclesiastical body.”[8]  Now that may sound like a mouthful, but some practical advice can be gleaned from all three of the above cases.

Draft Conflict-Ready Corporate Documents.

Churches must draft “battle-ready” organizational documents. In each of the church disputes I have described, most observers focus on the nature of the dispute – but, does it really matter whether a church is arguing over the firing of a minister or the color of carpet in the fellowship hall? No. What matters is ferreting out the proper legal authority and power centers as expressed in the corporate documents.

Therefore, churches must develop and draft corporate documents with an eye toward conflict, knowing that courts will only enforce neutral principles.  The corporate documents of the church ought to precisely set forth the power structures of the organization and avoid religious concepts or theologically-loaded statements.

Churches also should adopt clearly defined membership guidelines and voting procedures.  It also might be helpful for churches to include conflict resolution procedures for disputes between members or between a member and the church, for conflicts involving doctrine and church discipline, or for employment matters.

 If the Conflict Swells Out of Control, Get Help. Fast.

If the church is unable to resolve the dispute internally, hire a good lawyer.  Because so many church disputes are so personal, it is imperative that you bring in someone who: (A) has a limited personal investment in the dispute, and (B) understands the complexities of the legal issues involved.  Only someone who is relatively detached from the families and personalities involved and someone with a heart to resolve the matter in a legally enforceable and sophisticated manner should provide counsel.  Should you ever have specific questions about how your church should handle a legal dispute, please do not hesitate to contact me directly at (513) 852-6071 or by emailing me at bwfox@woodlamping.com.

It is my hope that my legal advice will help your few navigate the feuding.

Copyright © 2015 By: Brian W. Fox, Esq.  All Rights Reserved

ENDNOTES
[1] Morris Street Baptist Church v. Dart, 67 S.C. 338, 339 (S.C. 1903).
[2] Morris Street Baptist Church, 67 S.C. at 346.
[3] Dean v. Alford, 994 S.W. 2d 392, 394 (Tex. Ap. Ft. Worth 1999).
[4] Acts 2:44-45. NIV
[5] Acts 15:2, 39. NIV
[6] See Watson v. Jones (1871), 80 US 679.
[7] See Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church (1969), 393 U.S. 440.
[8] Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 604 (U.S. 1979).
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