Part 2: Court Involvement in Church Discipline -- By: Jay A. Quine

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 149:594 (Apr 1992)
Article: Part 2: Court Involvement in Church Discipline
Author: Jay A. Quine

Part 2:
Court Involvement in Church Discipline

Jay A. Quine

Pastor, Van Alstyne Bible Church, Van Alstyne, Texas
Former Municipal Court Judge, Colfax, Washington
Former Deputy Prosecutor, Whitman County, Washington

This article presents a historical overview of court involvement in church discipline cases through the 1980s. Based on this and the examination of the legal theories most commonly used in such cases (presented in the first article in this two-part series), guidelines and parameters for church leaders to consider in their practice of church discipline are suggested. These guidelines are not given to replace the mandates of Scripture, but to assist in the practice of church discipline within the bounds of legal impunity. An illustrative scenario is examined to demonstrate how the law might apply in a situation many churches and church leaders may experience.

Historical Overview of Court Involvement in Church Discipline

Early History

The filing of lawsuits by disciplined church members, though currently on the rise, is not new. In 1850 a woman sued her church and minister for libel after he announced during a worship service that she had “violated the seventh commandment.” He declared,

The church does now as always bear its solemn testimony against the sin of fornication and uncleanness, as an unfruitful work of darkness, eminently dishonorable to the God of purity and love; polluting to the souls of men and fearfully prejudicial to the welfare of society and the world.1

Following the established rule of common law, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that this public reading of the resolution was privileged. The court dismissed the claim, stating, “Maintenance of church order and discipline are amongst the church’s long recognized powers, including hearing complaints of misconduct and administering punishment if found to be true.”2

The case of Watson v. Jones3 is used by both plaintiffs and defendants in church discipline cases. Even though the case involved the conveyance of property, the court said much regarding church discipline. Plaintiffs often quote the following language:

In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe on personal rights, is conceded to all.4

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