Whose Rights are Protected in The Gospel Coalition’s Article on Churches and Current Legal Culture?

 Church Membership is being pushed in The Gospel Coalition’s recent article. Whose rights are protected?


Christina Holcomb, litigation counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition (TGC), 5 Actions Churches Should Take in a Changing Legal Culture, which was published today.

I can’t help but perk up and take notice when I read about churches and legal counsel after having been sued by my former pastor, Chuck O’Neal, and the church, Beaverton Grace Bible Church. Please note that both my former pastor and the church were plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. Here are a couple of screenshots from this lovely document that altered the course of my life:

bgbc2

Back page:

bgbc

Ms. Holcomb summarizes the new threats she sees in our current culture as it relates to religious rights and freedoms:

These new political, cultural, and legal realities directly affect the church’s freedom to live out its faith. While most church decisions about internal governance or doctrine currently enjoy constitutional protection, churches cannot assume that these protections will stand indefinitely. Maintaining a gospel-centered witness in today’s culture requires not only standing firm on the truths of Scripture, but also taking affirmative steps to protect the church’s freedom to continue peacefully teach and live out its faith.

She gave a brief paragraph for the following points:

1. Adopt a written statement of faith about marriage.

2. Establish religious employment criteria.

3. Create a facility use policy.

4. Establish a written marriage policy.

It is the last point, “Adopt a written membership policy,” where I would like to focus.  Here is what she wrote:

5. Adopt a written membership policy.

Only those persons who “unite” with the church have consented to the church’s authority over them. As a result, churches with formal members have greater legal protection when it becomes necessary to exercise church discipline. Churches are encouraged to adopt a written membership policy that explains the procedure for becoming a church member, procedures for member discipline, and procedures for rescinding church membership.

Of course, this recommendation does not mean that a church should adopt a form of church government to which it does not subscribe. Churches can still have designated members who affirm they are committed to and part of a church body, even if there is no voting or say in church practices.

Okie-dokie, I have a couple of thoughts:

Notice in the first sentence:  Only those persons who “unite” with the church have consented to the church’s authority over them

When you become a member, you are agreeing/consenting to the church’s authority over you.

Ok, now take a look at the second sentence:  As a result, churches with formal members have greater legal protection when it becomes necessary to exercise church discipline.

Look again closely. Who has the protection?  The member or the church?

Also please note that she’s encouraging all churches to adopt a written membership policy. 


Christiana Holcomb lays it out for us pretty clearly. She says the church must protect themselves first.

But when abusive church leadership has the law on their side and they don’t agree with you, a covenant-signed church member, you could be hosed.


I was sued without being a church member (despite the fabrications you read elsewhere by Chuck O’Neal). We never signed any documentation, never went before the church body to say we were formally agreeing to be members. I have a copy of the bylaws and know what membership entails and we were not official members, but my daughter and I were still sued.

Imagine, however, being in an abusive church in which your church membership is hung over your head and you are reminded that you signed the dotted line. You may have forfeited some of your legal rights. Please think very carefully about church membership. It is not a biblical mandate. It is a modern cultural trend.

Edited to add:  It looks like Dee at The Wartburg Watch blog also had a strong reaction to this article and wrote a blog post. There are some real practical helps here: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2015/04/09/further-proof-you-are-signing-a-legal-contract-not-a-membership-covenant-courtesy-of-the-gospel-coalition/

31 comments on “Whose Rights are Protected in The Gospel Coalition’s Article on Churches and Current Legal Culture?

  1. Whose Rights are Protected?

    The Highborn Milord Clergy, of course.
    The Lowborn pew sitters can all go to Hell; their only reason for existence is for the enrichment and convenience of their Highborn Milords.

    In Catholic theology, this is called the Heresy of Clericalism.
    It’s also related to the word “Nicolaitans” in Revelation; “Ruling over the people” in a way that the word is NOT a complement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely a church membership contract is a legal document and protects the church–one thing it can do as well on the bright side is document a pattern of attendance and involvement prior to doing things like working in children’s ministries. And ABSOLUTELY read things through carefully before signing. There are a lot of jerks out there, no doubt.

    But that said, all this really does is indicate that if you are asked to leave according to the church’s internal procedures, you cannot sue to retain your membership. You don’t lose your right to sue for libel or slander, or to press criminal charges if that is regrettably necessary.

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  3. Bike Bubba, I’ve actually read a membership document that if you have legal issues, you must seek mediation rather than legal measures. I’m not sure how you can get out of that if you signed that sort of legal agreement.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Julie Anne, I just wrote this over at TWW. I hope you don’t mind a repeat:

    Alliance Defending Freedom: Say no more.

    Formerly called Alliance Defense Fund, this is a legal organization, an alliance of 2200 attorneys in a non-profit “ministry” meant to defend religious freedom.

    My only encounter with Alliance Defending Freedom (other than an annoying phone call soliciting donations) was in October 2012, shortly before the election, when they were trying to get pastors to participate in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” This was intended to get pastors to preach publicly for or against political candidates or parties, by name, in violation of tax-exempt laws.

    While it is perfectly acceptable for a pastor to speak to a moral issue, such as abortion or same-sex marriage, speaking for or against a candidate may get the church in trouble. But Alliance Defending Freedom would be there to the rescue.

    Some law firms are called “ambulance chasers.” Alliance Defending Freedom goes one further, urging potential clients to jump out in front of moving traffic.

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  5. She seems power grabby and opportunistic.

    I cannot see why I would ever be motivated to join a group that had this attitude:

    Only those persons who “unite” with the church have consented to the church’s authority over them. As a result, churches with formal members have greater legal protection when it becomes necessary to exercise church discipline.

    It just seems to start everything off on the wrong foot and makes me want to go no further.

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  6. Of course I don’t mind, Ted. I did a little snooping at the ADF site and saw that they are allies with HSLDA. Another interesting thing to note, the author graduated from Oak Brook College. This is the unaccredited law school connected with Bill Gothard.

    I was surprised to see that this article, essentially telling male church leaders what to do in their churches, was written by a woman – – AND posted at TGC. I admit to smiling about that.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. She seems power grabby and opportunistic.

    Well, considering all the hoopla with bakeries, pizza places, florists dealing with LGBT and same-sex marriages, the article is timely.

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  8. JA, I am guessing that certain arbitration clauses could be upheld when a civil law is involved if the arbitrator was plausibly independent. Otherwise, I’m guessing that any good lawyer would quickly get that clause invalidated. The very presence of lines instate “mandatory reporter” laws requiring pastors to report child abuse and the like indicate this, too.

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  9. “I did a little snooping at the ADF site and saw that they are allies with HSLDA. Another interesting thing to note, the author graduated from Oak Brook College. This is the unaccredited law school connected with Bill Gothard.”

    The tentacles of Patriarchy have a greater influence in US Christian culture than most of us realize. Most people see it as a fringe movement until they can no longer find a church to belong to that doesn’t require a legal membership contract.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. @Bike Bubba

    I’m sure every state may be different, but Texas courts almost always uphold arbitration clauses.

    Like

  11. Oh my a church leader that sues people not even “officially” members. I cant believe that, how unbelievable membership or perceived membership would be used as a club to keep the underlings in tow.

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  12. Re: ADF, etc. Who else is litigating cases to protect religious people from the state coercion of consciences which is occurring? As I have said before, I don’t think the ACLU is protecting religious freedom. Granny goes into the bakery business, not realising that a few years later the law will be changed, and she will be compelled by the state to decorate cakes with messages which violate her conscience.

    Re: Membership covenants, I am not sure how they would be enforceable. First, because unlike a contract, there is no consideration given. How would the church be damaged if a member violated the covenant? At most their salvation could be “revoked”. Second, courts generally don’t get involved in theological matters, in part because of the Free Exercise clause, but also because a court is a very poor forum for deciding theological disputes. Ordinary legal matters such as liability for an injury occurring on church property are entirely different, as no interpretation of church dogma is involved.

    As far as churches being compelled to violate their beliefs because they do not have a stated policy regarding who may be married there, I think it is probably a good idea. If such policies are not stated, I can see strategic litigation being engaged in by proponents of opposing views.

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  13. The Wartburg Watch wrote a post regarding the enforceability of church membership contracts. In it, they give an example of a lawsuit brought against a church. The church tried to defend itself against the lawsuit by claiming “the couple implicitly agreed to biblical mediation when they joined the church.” The court did not agree. “The church lost its appeal ONLY because they did not clearly state that mediation was part of their membership agreement. You can be sure that such an oversight has been remedied.”

    http://thewartburgwatch.com/2014/10/29/proof-that-its-not-a-membership-covenant-but-a-legally-binding-document/

    Liked by 1 person

  14. BTDT: Thanks for the link. As I am pressed for time this am, I have not had a chance to read it in full. It sounds kind of spooky thus far.

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  15. BTDT: So far, this is not an example of strategic litigation to further a policy agenda, but rather a situation wherein the plaintiff is alleging that her “counselor” at the church took advantage of her sexual addiction. Sounds tragic.

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  16. The question is “Whose Rights are Protected in The Gospel Coalition’s Article on Churches and Current Legal Culture?” It isn’t just about protecting rights of organizations and their leaders. It is about amassing power–power over the very Blood-bought lambs of our Lord and Savior.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. BTDT–agreed. The trick is that arbitration really only covers a fairly narrow range of civil actions.

    No issue, again, with the idea that you’ve got to read the membership documents carefully. With our hostess and others, I agree fully that if you do not agree that Matthew 18 governs how Christians ought to resolve their differences, you will do well to stay out of churches that use it–whether they do it well or poorly. (I’ve unfortunately seen more of the latter, to be honest)

    If you see something that (per BTDT’s comment) looks like a “rather expansive” version of arbitration, know that you could end up hiring a lawyer to get out of that in the case of real wrongs being committed against you.

    But that said, what you can put into a membership agreement/covenant is really pretty limited–the main goal is really to gain legal cover when someone is expelled from membership.

    One other caution; the associations here really don’t matter that much. Remember “six degrees of separation”? Guilt by association is a logical fallacy. Let’s not fall into that trap, as many of our difficulties we’ve had with abusive churches use that one extensively.

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  18. In the Bible…

    His Kings and Priests, His Sheep, His sons, His Servants…
    His Disciples, His Ambassadors, His Ekklesia, His Called Out Ones…
    His Redeemed, His Church…

    Never signed “A Church Membership” form.
    Never “consented to Mere Fallible Humans having authority over them.”
    ————

    Never – Never – Never

    Sign “A Church Membership Form.”

    Please – If you are asked to sign “A Church Membership Form?”

    Run – Do NOT walk – Run – To the nearest exit.

    And run to {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    If you have already signed “A Church Membership Form?”

    Please – Ask to see it – Take it in your hands – Then…
    Ask the powers that be if you can tear it into little pieces…
    Destroy it…

    If they say – NO…

    Run – Do NOT walk – Run – To the nearest exit.

    And run to {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    If you are afraid to ask? – Afraid to tear it into shreads…

    Run – Do NOT walk – Run – To the nearest exit.

    And run to {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    Jer 50:6
    “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
    **THEIR shepherds** have caused them to *go astray,*

    1 Pet 2:25
    For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
    BUT are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I’ve read or heard some good things about ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom). They sometimes defend Christians who are being harassed or pressured unfairly by secular culture, so they can’t be all bad.

    Having said that, though, I’m not in support of draconian, oppressive, legalized church membership paperwork.

    All of this also reminds me a bit of the slate of editorials and tip sheets I’ve seen crop up the last 2 or 3 years on sites such as Christian Post, Christianity Today, and other sites, where laypersons are told how difficult it is to be a preacher, so here’s a list of ten things you can do to protect or nurture your preacher.

    Those sorts of lists and editorials make me want to throw up, as though preachers have life worse than the rest of us and deserve to be coddled and blanketed in the softest lamb wool jammies.

    Spare me. If you find being a preacher that difficult, then get into another line of work.

    Given also that so many preachers today are narcissistic, self absorbed, bully jerks who use church laypersons and discard them when they are no longer useful, I don’t feel sorry for preachers.

    If anything, laypersons need defending against preachers and elders and church staff who are abusive or who exploit.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Also, to go a bit more into what I was saying above,

    “All of this also reminds me a bit of the slate of editorials and tip sheets I’ve seen crop up the last 2 or 3 years on sites such as Christian Post, Christianity Today, and other sites, where laypersons are told how difficult it is to be a preacher, so here’s a list of ten things you can do to protect or nurture your preacher.”

    I just find this so annoying.

    (BTW, I think, IIRC, I’ve even seen some of those lists suggest that you do stuff for your preacher like pay for him and his family – on your own dime- to take a vacation in Hawaii, buy him a new car, mow his lawn for him, and do other gestures that are above and beyond – they have to be joking.)

    I never see these Christian blogs or news sites produce articles for any other profession such as:

    >”Hey Christians, you don’t know how stressful it is to be a receptionist! So here are ten ways you can coddle and make life easier for the receptionists in your life!”
    (and, “Why don’t you buy that receptionist an all-paid for trip to Hawaii! Rub his/her shoulders. Buy her/him a new car. You don’t know how exhausting and stressful it is to be a receptionist, it’s so demanding!!”)

    >”Hey Christians, you don’t know how stressful it is to be a plumber! So here are ten ways you can coddle and make life easier for the plumbers in your life!”

    >”Hey Christians, you don’t know how stressful it is to be a school teacher! So here are ten ways you can coddle and make life easier for the school teacherss in your life!”

    >”Hey Christians, you don’t know how stressful it is to be a computer programmer! So here are ten ways you can coddle and make life easier for the computer programmers in your life!”

    >”Hey Christians, you don’t know how stressful it is to be a lawyer! So here are ten ways you can coddle and make life easier for the lawyers in your life!”
    ———–
    Yeah. Until I see such a level of concern for people who hold any and every profession or none (some folks are unemployed) in-between and outside of church preacher or Christian celebrity, the people who believe preachers deserve special consideration can kiss my foot.

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  21. Regarding the OP quote,
    “Only those persons who “unite” with the church have consented to the church’s authority over them.”

    This is kind of a tough situation. There are places in the New Testament where local churches are called to kick out self-professing Christians who are living in habitual, unrepentant sin, so there has to be some level of – I don’t know if “authority” is the right word – but someone in a church (or group of someones) has to be able to tell a misbehaving person to hit the road, that is entirely biblical, so to a point I am sympathetic with some of this.

    On the other hand, I think a lot of churches today have gone too far with the whole “the church has authority over you” spiel.

    Some churches are investing a preacher and/or church will too much authority, to the point they have forgotten to show mercy and grace(*) to people, and they forget that Jesus is the ultimate authority over the body of believers, not them.
    ——-
    *Side note on that, though – some churches err on this.
    They will extend mercy, grace, and second chances to people who habitually abuse their wives or who molest children, but treat the victims of these abusers as though they are the guilty ones! Grace and forgiveness gets extended to the guilty but denied to the victims, it’s backwards.

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  22. Per Daisy’s fun (if exasperated perhaps?) comments, I try to make life easier on lawyers by not getting myself into situations where I need to hire them. :^)

    Not quite sure they appreciate that in toto, but hey….

    Seriously, I’d like to believe that there is somehow, somewhere a possibility that I can “mind my manners” and make life easier on receptionists, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, programmers, and perhaps even pastors without coddling them. Maybe sometimes that will even be reciprocated! (actually it’s the exception that it’s not, at least in my case)

    Like

  23. As I understand it, there really are only two sanctions which can be imposed pursuant to church discipline, suspension from the sacrament and excommunication. Are there other sanctions employed by churches?

    The article uses the very real free exercise concern as bait, but then seems to advocate extensive membership policies. It is not clear how the two are connected, given the narrow range of sanctions available.

    Like

  24. Just remembered another thing driving this; insurance. More or less, if a church concedes responsibility, many insurance policies will no longer pay, even if it’s something that no one but the perpetrator could have foreseen.

    For example, the Vineyard case that the Wartburg Watch references. Pastor begins sexual relationship with vulnerable counselee, counselee requires therapy to cope, counselee and family sue to recover medical costs. Head pastor knows counselor is guilty and fires him within an hour.

    Now apart from insurance, the response is obvious. You discuss the matter with deacons, agree that the church ought to cover at least a portion of the counseling & care, apologize to the offended in person, look over your policies that ought to prevent this, and contract with someone outside to audit your work periodically.

    But if insurance says you’ve got to mount a defense for them to cover damages….there’s a rub,no? Now not being a lawyer or an insurer, I don’t have any “easy” solutions for this, but I wonder if someone might figure out a way that churches might qualify for insurance and yet be free to NOT defend themselves in court.

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  25. Gee….. what are the Native American’s supposed to do when it comes to their ‘tribe membership’…… all this legal confusion. Run to the supreme court and get the red-skin removed from their body? No wonder the Native Americans were mad when the Europeans started settling on their land…… The Europeans brought LAWYERS!

    Just saying.

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  26. Laura, the tribes have their own courts, actually, and the good and bad is that it’s not always done on a model of Anglo-American jurisprudence. So they are not as afflicted with “our” type of lawyer as you might think.

    Good or bad? I think you can get a heck of an argument either way, depending on who you ask. I am no huge expert, so I will not try to make either!

    Like

  27. @GaryW:

    It isn’t just about protecting rights of organizations and their leaders. It is about amassing power–power over the very Blood-bought lambs of our Lord and Savior.

    Because mutton is SO delicious, Pastors’ mouths water for it at every meal.

    Like

  28. Pingback: Kevin DeYoung Pushes Church Memberships and Making Vows | Spiritual Sounding Board

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