Avoid Church Discipline Lawsuits
Traditionally, the courts have not involved themselves in cases of church discipline because of First Amendment privilege. When it comes to the discipline of church members or regular attenders, however, some civil courts have indicated a willingness to intervene in church affairs in the following circumstances:
- A church's disciplinary actions amount to a deliberate and malicious campaign to ruin someone financially, politically, or psychologically.
- A church publicly divulges private details of an individual's personal and private affairs - as a part of church discipline procedures - when that person is not clearly and voluntarily affiliated with the church.
- A church fails to consistently follow its established bylaws or disciplinary guidelines in relation to church discipline.
When considering church discipline matters, courts tend to balance the participant's implied consent to the church's authority with the participant's right to withdraw that consent and leave the church. The greater the individual's voluntary participation in the life of the church, the more likely a court will be to determine the individual consented to the authority of the church. For this reason, churches have the greatest legal protection when their discipline policies apply only to those who are clearly and voluntarily affiliated with the church.
Risk Management Recommendations for Church Discipline
The following recommendations may reduce the likelihood of a civil court intervening in the affairs of your church:
- Amend bylaws and/or disciplinary guidelines to limit their application, as well as divulging as little private personal information as possible during discipline proceedings. These documents should clearly explain to whom the church's discipline authority applies. Church discipline should never apply to anyone who is not clearly and voluntarily affiliated with the church.
- Obtain informed consent to disciplinary policies from all members and regular attendees. Ideally, there would be a written statement signed by all persons subject to church discipline affirming that he or she understands and agrees with the policies.
- Teach regularly on church discipline so members and regular attendees remain aware of the biblical basis, purpose, and steps of discipline.
Steps to Follow When Applying Discipline
- Be consistent.
- Carefully follow your bylaws and/or disciplinary guidelines.
- Avoid taking disciplinary action against anyone who is not clearly and voluntarily affiliated with the church.
- Always speak the truth in love.
- Communicate private information only to those who have a right and need to know. Public statements to the congregation should include only the biblical principle that has been violated, the identity of the violator, and the instructions from church leaders as to what sanction is being imposed.
- In discussing unproven allegations with leaders, be careful to distinguish between what is fact and what is merely allegation.
- Base all decisions on clearly explained biblical grounds. Ideally, all final church discipline decisions should be reduced to writing and retained in church records available only to authorized persons.
- Check with your legal counsel while developing your church discipline policy and before providing documentation of your disciplinary policies to an inquiring attorney.
Special note: If you have a Brotherhood Mutual policy and a lawsuit is filed against your ministry, contact us immediately. We can review the allegations and help you understand the available insurance coverage under your policy. We can also assist you in determining what to do in response to the suit.
For more on what to do in the event of a liability claim, visit our claims section to learn what to do when a loss occurs.
Church discipline information used with permission from Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC), 1537 Avenue D, Suite 352, Billings, MT 59102.