Ambiguous wording in a church constitution or bylaws frequently leads to internal disputes. Such was the case in a recent controversy in Washington. A Lutheran church's constitution provided that "the candidate receiving the majority of all votes cast shall, upon unanimous approval, be declared elected."
The church convened a congregational meeting to vote on a pastoral candidate, and the candidate received a majority of the votes cast (but not "unanimous approval"). The candidate was subsequently employed, and a group of dissidents filed a lawsuit in which they asked a civil court to enforce the church's constitutional requirement of "unanimous approval."
While noting that the first amendment prohibits a court "from entangling itself in matters of church doctrine or practice," the court concluded that it could resolve controversies, such as this one, involving the interpretation "of an ambiguous provision in what amounts to a contract between the members of the congregation, dealing with a purely procedural question" and involving "no ecclesiastical or doctrinal issues."
The court also noted that it found no "dispute resolution process" within the denomination to which it could defer. A dissenting judge, quoting several passages of Scripture (Numbers 11:16-17; Matthew 9:35-38; Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:19-23; Acts 6:2-7; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Ephesians 4:7-12; Hebrews 5:1-10) characterized the selection of clergy as an ecclesiastical process in which the civil courts may never interfere. Organization for Preserving the Constitution of Zion Lutheran Church v. Mason, 743 P.2d 848 (Wash. App. 1987).