The Church in Court
Our civilized and cultured society thrives on all kinds of lawsuits. Professionals are readily charged with "mal-practice" and sued for millions of dollars. Corporations are easily accused of negligence and hit for vast amounts. We know of outrageous alimony and palimony suits. Discrimination suits — sexual or otherwise — are filed almost daily against companies or individuals. To sue or not to sue, is no longer the question. The question is: For how much shall I sue my neighbor? The results? Courts are backlogged with time-consuming cases, lawyers amass veritable fortunes in fees, and insurance premiums skyrocket.
A New Trend?
One may perhaps not yet speak of a trend, but increasingly also churches are being confronted with threats of litigation or are actually being dragged into court. Although in the past there have been court cases involving churches and government (agencies), nowadays, it seems, especially individuals are taking their church to task before the magistrate.
There are already a few well-chronicled cases that have gained notoriety through avaricious press and media coverage. There is the case of a San Fransisco Orthodox Presbyterian minister who faced a suit in 1979 for firing a homosexual organist. There is the case of a Los Angeles pastor being sued for clergy malpractice because a member of his church committed suicide while under counselling of the church. Another case resulted in a sixty-day jail sentence for a minister who refused to testify against a member of his church in a child abuse trial. There was the case of an Ontario housewife who publicly threatened litigation because of the disciplinary measures taken against her by the consistory of the church of which she was a member.
Recently the magazine Leadership (Vol. VI, No. 1, Winter 1985) published an interview with some of the abovementioned ministers regarding their predicaments and experiences before the courts. It becomes clear that the litigation does not only involve the person and practice of the pastors concerned, but is often as much an attack on the doctrine and discipline of the church itself. The question in various instances has very concretely become: Does a church have the right to discipline its members according to its accepted standards, or are these internal standards subject to judicial review and the process of civil law? Stern advocates of religious freedom will deny the courts any rights in this respect. But staunch supporters of civil liberty will claim vehemently that churches, too, may not take any action which might in some way be considered discriminatory. And these latter champions may have the edge in public opinion, for our society has largely sanctioned permissiveness and free expression of sinful morals. The prevailing attitude is: What right has anyone — also a church — to tell others how to live?
The Growing Risk
When one adds to the above the fact that there are various sects and cults whose methods of brainwashing and exploitation have indeed given "religion" a bad name, and that some rightwing, fundamentalist groups unashamedly preach a redneck, racist theology, it is easy to conclude that in many such litigation suits the churches are from the onset at a disadvantage. The public and the press rather easily equate radical sects or fundamentalist factions with established conservative churches of good standing. There is not much discretion here, I'm afraid, with the masses and the media.
This entire setting may make some churches somewhat wary of exercising proper church discipline, especially when the wayward member threatens to sue. And these threats are reportedly on the increase. Leadership quotes one of the ministers interviewed as follows,
People are becoming aware that they can sue the church — out of vengeance, guilt or a desire for money — even if there's no substance to their accusation.
In such situations, some officebearers might forget about exercising church discipline rather than risk being hauled into court.
We need not be too surprised at these developments. It is clear from Scripture that the faithful church of Christ will increasingly suffer abuse from the side of the world. The courts must enforce the law of the land, but when these laws are based on humanistic principles and permit sinful practice, there will inevitably be conflicts between churches and the courts. There is no neutrality here, and the independence and freedom of the churches is at stake, as is the case throughout the latter days.
The question is also whether the government with all its agencies, civil or judicial, will bend under the Word of God or resist it. Satan does not hesitate to use political power and judicial procedure against the church of Christ. We also believe the promise of our Lord that He will continue to build His Church and that "the powers of death shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
Legal or Scriptural?
Although these developments do cause us concern, there is no reason for panic or fear. The churches must faithfully carry out their calling in preaching the true Gospel, in administering the holy sacraments, and in exercising Christian discipline. This must be done with wisdom and caution in keeping with the stated confession and the adopted order of the church. This is of the utmost importance also in a legal sense. For the members of the church who have voluntarily submitted themselves to the discipline of the church really have no legal right to complain when dealt with according to the rules they themselves have accepted. Most courts will still take this position.
And whenever church discipline must be exercised, officebearers should be very precise in defining the exact reason(s) for such discipline and not work with vague, unproven allegations. Otherwise church discipline may not just be illegal, it is also un-Scriptural. If a church is ever dragged into court, it must become clear from the evidence that its doctrine and discipline are fully Scriptural and that all its actions are in accordance with the accepted church order. For even if a court would then present a guilty verdict, the Judge of heaven and earth will vindicate the church that is faithful to His Law. And that is ultimately what counts.