By Spencer Miller
(Editor’s Note: The following article is written by a Christian who is a practicing attorney. Brother Miller serves in a law firm with three other attorneys, two of whom are Christians. Brother Miller has also preached quite a bit in the Kansas City, Missouri area and respects the word of God. Hence, he is amply qualified to address the question under discussion in this article.)
Most members of the body of Christ have become familiar with the civil suit in Collinsville, Oklahoma where a member of the church who had been withdrawn from received a judgment in the aggregate of $390,000.00. The theory of recovery pursued by the plaintiff in that case included the concept of invasion of privacy with a request for actual and punitive damages. Since the verdict in the Collinsville case, lawsuits against the church and/or individual members have been reported in Garden Grove, California; Lafayette, Louisiana, and Del Rio, Texas. As a result of these activities, brethren everywhere are pondering what they ought to do to prevent the possibility of a disastrous verdict against the local church where they are members. Although there is not a simple answer to that complex inquiry, this article will propose certain actions which may be taken to alleviate the problem.
Fulfilling Our Responsibility
Initially, it is noted that a proper course of conduct does not include the decision to stop withdrawing from those wayward members who need to be disciplined. As faithful members of the Lord’s church, we have a God-given responsibility to comply with the commands set forth in passages such as 1 Corinthians 5.
Shirking our responsibility is not now, nor has it ever been, a proper response to adversity.
Now more than ever before there is a need for congregations to be consistent with their application of discipline. In the past there have been circumstances where withdrawing fellowship was applied on a hit and miss basis with no consistency at all. Such a course of conduct is not only inconsistent with sound doctrine, but it could also be used against a local church in a civil suit.
In almost every case that has been filed against various churches of Christ, there has been a claim for punitive damages. Historically, punitive damages have been allowed only in those cases where there has been intentional conduct that has been motivated by malice. Malice has been legally defined to include “hatred, ill will or spite.” Like many other matters, malice is seldom, if ever, susceptible of direct proof. Rather, there is usually an attempt to prove malice by circumstantial evidence. It could be argued that the fact that one particular member is singled out for withdrawal while others who have been guilty of similar conduct were not is circumstantial evidence of ill will directed to the person from whom the congregation has withdrawn.
In light of these circumstances, it is imperative that God’s people consistently practice God’s plan for discipline. Inconsistency will certainly not be tolerated by the Almighty and may not be tolerated by a civil jury.
Authority And The Use Of The Lord’s Money
Another threshold question that must be addressed iithe issue of what a local congregatiod may do with the Lord’s money in this context of lawsuits against the church. It is not the purpose of this article to provide an extensive analysis of this issue. However, it has been assumed that there is scriptural authority for a local congregation to own a meeting place and the property associated with it. If that is true (and the author believes that it is), then God expects us to be good stewards. We cannot squander the Lord’s assets or allow them to be misused. With this concept in mind some of the recommendations set forth herein will be more meaningful.
Probably one of the most cost efficient methods for approaching the problem of lawsuits against the church is the procurement of a liability insurance policy which includes coverage for claims of invasion of privacy, libel, slander, defamation, etc. Such policies are available on the market. Two companies which issue such policies are Church Mutual Insurance Company and Lumberman’s Mutual. The cost is not expensive. If we have secured insurance policies in the past in order to protect against the loss of the church building by fire, then there is even a greater need to protect the Lord’s property from a rebellious member and his or her attorney.
In purchasing an insurance policy there are several important considerations. First, the policy must be designed to provide the coverage needed. It is more than just a fire insurance policy. Advice from an attorney or independent insurance agent may be necessary to insure that the policy purchased is adequate.
Second, the policy must have a very broad definition of who is an insured under the policy. The definition of “insured” should include the church collectively and those acting on behalf of the church, such as evangelists and elders. In the cases that have been filed to date, individuals have been sued as well as the church collectively. Therefore, broad coverage is essential.
Third, consideration must be given to the possibility of purchasing coverage in addition to the basic coverage. An endorsement is available with some policies which includes counseling malpractice which would involve those situations where marital counseling by the elders or the preacher results in a claim that the situation was mishandled. Also, umbrella coverage may be purchased in addition to the basic coverage which would increase the applicable limits of liability. A question to consider is related to the value of the local church’s property. It would be unwise to believe that a $100,000.00 liability insurance policy would be sufficient to protect the assets of a congregation where the fair market value of the church building and preacher’s home is in excess of $300,000.00.
By purchasing an insurance policy, one item that is covered which is extremely important is the cost of defense. That means that the attorney’s fees and associated defense costs which includes expert witness fees, deposition expenses, etc. will all be paid by the insurance company. Without an insurance policy those expenses necessary for protecting the Lord’s property will probably be paid out of the church treasury. Those expenses could be substantial and could put a strain on any church’s finances.
In The Event There Is No Insurance
Obviously, there are some situations which already exist, where a lawsuit has been filed and there is no insurance. In that event, the case must be defended. It would be improper to simply allow a rebellious member to receive a default judgment and allow the church building to be auctioned on the Courthouse steps or the Sheriff take the contribution every Sunday in order to satisfy a judgment. Action must be taken.
One pitfall that must be avoided is the selection of counsel to represent the church who will not do an adequate job defending the case. There is probably no way that any of these cases may be settled. If we are doing God’s will by withdrawing fellowship from wayward members, then we cannot pay such a member any money simply to settle a lawsuit that is filed against the church. Although it is proper to take money from the church to defend a lawsuit in order to protect the Lord’s assets, there is no authority that would allow money to be taken out of the treasury to pay a sinner for a lawsuit. Therefore, since the case will not be settled, a well qualified attorney is critical.
Perhaps, a member of the local church is an attorney who will know whom to hire. Perhaps, a member of the local church because of unrelated matters knows of a good trial lawyer. On the other hand, if information is not available in regard to the employment of an attorney, it is recommended that an attorney who is a Christian be contacted even in another city or state so that information may be obtained to aid in the selection process. A bad lawyer is almost as bad as no lawyer.
The popularity of lawsuits against the church will probably pass with time, but in the interim action must be taken to prepare for the possibility of such a suit. It is hoped that the information set forth in this article will assist in making the necessary preparation. We cannot allow the affairs of the world to interfere with God’s plan to keep the church pure.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 6, pp. 163, 183
March 21, 1985