Why American Courts Care about Church Membership—And Why You Should, Too
Do we really need to join a church? Does our church really need a church membership policy? Is a detailed church covenant overkill? In American culture, it’s much easier for people to shop for a church that feels like the “right fit” than it is to commit to join a local congregation. Thankfully, a number of helpful books and articles have been written explaining the biblical case for church membership.
But pastors and church members should also know that American law provides reasons for churches to give careful attention to both their membership policies and the theological basis for those policies. Doing so respects the individuals who come to the church, and it can also protect the church from legal liability.
The goal of this article is to unpack the latter half of that claim: that clear membership processes offer legal protection to American churches.
LEGAL RISKS CHURCHES FACE
Churches sometimes face legal exposure. Even a well-functioning, gospel-preaching, Scripture-affirming church can find itself facing a lawsuit.
Suppose a church exercises appropriate, biblical church discipline to correct unrepentant sin. In the process, one elder tells the other elders what’s happening (Matthew 18:16). Maybe they end up having to tell the entire church (Matthew 18:17). Instead of repenting, the person under discipline sues the church for defamation.
For years, American courts have recognized that the First Amendment’s religion clauses prohibit courts from interfering with churches’ internal affairs. This principle, known as the “church autonomy doctrine,” provides churches with legal freedom to, as it were, be the church. On many occasions, when churches have been sued for church discipline, courts have said that they cannot review the decisions of a church in carrying out its principles of discipline and self-governance.
But simply being a church isn’t always enough. Often, courts ask whether a particular church action is “religious” or “ecclesiastical”—that is, based on religious principles, doctrine, or theological conviction. If it is, it’s protected. If it’s not, then courts might not protect the action under the free exercise of religion. Often this is relatively straightforward. A car accident in the church van is not religious, but a correction for doctrinal error is. Sometimes, however, the lines are blurred, such as where a pastor allegedly defames someone in a context that is less than crystal clear.
COURTS CARE ABOUT MEMBERSHIP
This is where church membership makes a difference. If a church can point to a membership commitment or covenant that explains the biblical basis of church discipline, then there’s little chance that anyone (courts included) could be confused about the religious basis of church discipline. If the member in fact agreed to the covenant, so much the better. It becomes that much easier to conclude that the church was exercising its religious liberty to govern its own internal affairs in accord with its religious convictions. Even judges inclined to be less protective of churches recognize that membership matters. Membership is evidence that the church and the member have taken their relationship seriously.
To be clear, churches can win cases without formal membership policies, but in some jurisdictions it’s harder to do so; a clear membership policy makes the case for “church autonomy” protections easier. Some courts say that internal church affairs as such should be automatically protected, and in these jurisdictions membership matters less. But other courts are more inclined to search for a way to adjudicate tort cases (defamation, for instance) if there’s ambiguity about whether the proceeding involves membership.
One recent case illustrates the point. It involved two pastors from the same denomination going on a trip together. Pastor A alleged that Pastor B sexually harassed him. Pastor A reported Pastor B to denominational authorities and also called out Pastor B as an untrustworthy person in front of Pastor A’s congregation. Pastor B then sued for defamation. The report to denominational authorities was held to be protected within church autonomy protection. But Pastor A’s comments to his own congregation were not protected because the court wasn’t convinced that this was called for by their religious obligations. Among other things, the fact that Pastor B wasn’t a part of Pastor A’s church was important to the court because Pastor A had no formal relationship to correct Pastor B in front of Pastor A’s church. One can imagine similar questions arising in the not-uncommon situation where a church starts a discipline process and the person subject to discipline then leaves the church.
At the very least, a court might allow discovery in the course of litigation in order to determine if a particular tort case will intrude on religious decision-making. In this scenario, clearly written church membership materials will aid the church in documenting the religious character of church actions.
American courts recognize that churches have a religious responsibility to govern themselves in accordance with their convictions. Church membership is thus not just a way of following biblical principles of accountability and commitment. It’s a wise way to protect the church from liability.
A BASIC IMPLICATION
Simply put, prospective members should appreciate the clarity provided by a membership process. Members and prospective members should be aware of what they’re committing to when they join a church.
Many Americans are unaware that there’s even a difference between being a regular attendee and a member. “I’m committed to the church! I make it a priority, and I’m there consistently,” one might say. “Doesn’t that make me a member?” No, because (among other things) being a regular attendee doesn’t sufficiently clarify the nature of the relationship between the attendee and the church. There are biblical reasons to argue this, of course, but I simply want to emphasize that this also influences how many American judges have approached the issue.
The courts—especially in older cases—remind us that people should know what they’re committing to. If one is held accountable through a church discipline proceeding, that’s perfectly reasonable and justified if they had willingly subjected themselves to such a possibility. Those who never took the step of affirming their commitment cannot expect the same commitment from the church. This includes the commitment to lovingly discipline them if they persist if the occasion requires it. Again, historically, American courts have recognized this. Perhaps they can serve as a reminder to contemporary Christians who wonder about the value of church membership.
Clear membership policies help the church and the courts alike to better analyze and manage the boundaries between church and state. For Christians, the biblical case for church membership should always be first and foremost. But it’s good to know that complying with biblical best practices also has practical legal benefits.