by Lisa A. Runquist
WORKS, Vol. I, No. 5, October 1991.
The number of church disputes ending up in court has recently increased dramatically. Contrary to the scriptural admonition to settle disputes within the church, civil courts are now full of cases involving churches.
These suits can and should be avoided. Besides the scriptural directive to settle, courts don’t want these cases. If proper methods of resolving disputes through church arbitration had been implemented, much church litigation now before the courts wouldn’t have occurred.
Civil courts won’t decide matters of church doctrine. The First amendment prohibits the government from establishing religion. If entanglement is likely to flow from governmental involvement with a church, that involvement is not permitted. To avoid potential entanglement in church disputes, courts have unanimously refused to decide ecclesiastical matters like creeds, the proper mode of exercising one’s belief, church discipline, tenets, general church policy and the choice of ministers. In such matters the state and its courts have no legitimate concern or jurisdiction.
Courts will intervene in church property disputes, but they’ll defer to established church authority. A court’s decision cannot be based on doctrine, but must be based on “neutral principles of law.” For example, the court may award the property to the majority, or divide the property in accordance with the members, or use some other method which doesn’t involve examining doctrine. But if the church has its own procedure to settle them matter, the courts will generally defer to the church and will require this procedure to be followed.
If no method of resolving disputes is established, the court will be left with no choice but to decide the matter in accordance with these “neutral principles.”
Arbitration agreements adopted before a dispute arises are a favored dispute resolution mechanism. Even apart from the special deference given to churches and church tribunals, an established public policy favors arbitration when an agreement to arbitrate has already been adopted. Therefore – even as a matter of public policy – churches should be encouraged to agree to alternative dispute procedures such as arbitration.
Every church should have a way to arbitrate disputes. In order to resolve a dispute internally and without going to court, the church bylaws should provide a procedure to follow when a dispute arises. If a controversy can’t be settled locally, the bylaws should contain a method to resolve the matter by convening an arbitration council to settle it within the fellowship of the larger church.
The principal issue to decide when developing a church arbitration procedure is: “To whom are you willing to submit?” Many churches are unwilling to address this issue. Some tell me the decision will be made by their church board. How the dispute will be decided when the church board is split, or when the dispute is with the church board, remains unsolved. If the church doesn’t decide to whom it will submit, it has, by default, chosen to submit church disputes to civil courts.
The procedure must also be adopted by those who are to be bound by it. If the church is congregational, the members must agree before they and the church will be bound. and because outside parties haven’t consented, the church arbitration procedure isn’t binding on disputes with third parties, and the aggrieved party may still resort to the courts for resolution.
Not all problems will be solved by developing an arbitration procedure. But every time a court battle involves a church, the world sees only divisiveness and animosity – the ugliness of the flesh instead of a portrait of the love of Christ. To the degree we can avoid such disputes by prior agreement, we will have increased our ability to minister – not just to each other, but to the entire world.