Key point 6-09.02. Church members have such legal authority as is vested in them by their church's governing documents, and in some cases by state nonprofit corporation law.
In churches with a congregational form of government, the general rule is that a majority of the members represent the church and have the right to manage its affairs and to control its property for the use and benefit of the church, and that the law will protect such authority at least as it relates to civil, contract, or property rights. Mitchell v. Dickey, 173 S.E.2d 695 (Ga. 1970); Wright v. Smith, 124 N.E.2d 363 (Ill. 1955); McHargue v. Feltner, 325 S.W.2d 349 (Ky. 1959). One court has stated the rule as follows: "The courts will give effect to the action of the majority of members of a congregational or independent religious organization … insofar as regards civil or property rights when they have acted in harmony with church rules, customs and practices at a meeting properly called." Willis v. Davis, 323 S.W.2d 847, 849 (Ky. 1959).
The United States Supreme Court has observed that "majority rule is generally employed in the governance of religious societies." Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 607 (1979). Other courts have held that a majority of a church's membership has the authority to sell a parsonage and acquire a new one; McHargue v. Feltner, 325 S.W.2d 349 (Ky. 1959). to oust a minority group that had wrongfully and violently seized possession of the church building; Mitchell v. Dickey, 173 S.E.2d 695 (Ga. 1970). to call a meeting of the church; Willis v. Davis, 323 S.W.2d 847 (Ky. 1959). to expel members; Smith v. Lewis, 578 S.W.2d 169 (Tex. App. 1979); Moorman v. Goodman, 157 A.2d 519 (N.J. 1960). to disaffiliate from one denomination and associate with another; Foss v. Dykstra, 342 N.W.2d 220 (S.D. 1983); Douglass v. First Baptist Church, 287 P.2d 965 (Colo. 1955). to adopt bylaws; First Baptist Church v. State of Ohio, 591 F. Supp. 676 (S.D. Ohio 1983); Lewis v. Wolfe, 413 S.W.2d 314 (Mo. 1967). to authorize church activity and direct or control disposition of church property; Mt. Jezreel Christians Without a Home v. Board of Trustees of Mount Jezreel Baptist Church, 582 A.2d 237 (D.C. App. 1990) ("[w]e therefore hold that, as a general principle, bona fide members of a church have standing to bring suit as trust beneficiaries when there is a dispute over the use or disposition of church property"); Pilgrim Evangelical v. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Foundation, 661 S.W.2d 833 (Mo. App. 1983); Blair v. Blair, 396 S.E.2d 374 (S.C. App. 1990). and to select and remove a minister. LeBlanc v. Davis, 432 So.2d 239 (La. 1983).
The general authority possessed by the members of a congregational church exists whether the church is incorporated or unincorporated. However, state corporate law may grant the members of an incorporated church additional specific powers. For example, the Model Nonprofit Corporation Act, which has been adopted in whole or in part in a majority of states, specifies that "all books and records of a corporation may be inspected by any member, or his agent or attorney, for any proper purpose at any reasonable time." MODEL NONPROFIT CORPORATION ACT § 25.
The authority of a majority of members in a church with a congregational form of government is limited. Church members only have the authority vested in them by the church's governing documents or by state corporation law. In a leading case, a court rejected a demand by several church members that their church conduct a meeting at which the pastor and trustees would give a complete accounting of the affairs of the church, since neither the church's charter nor bylaws conferred such authority upon the membership. The court concluded that the members "have only such powers, if any, in the management of the affairs of the corporation as may be conferred upon them by the charter and bylaws." First Baptist Church v. State of Ohio, 591 F. Supp. 676 (S.D. Ohio 1983); Evans v. Shiloh Baptist Church, 77 A.2d 160, 163 (Md. 1950). See also Katz v. Singerman, 127 So.2d 515 (La. 1961).
On the other hand, while no court has reached this conclusion, it would seem reasonable to regard a church's governing documents, like the United States Constitution, as a "delegated powers" instrument. The tenth amendment to the Constitution states that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people." In essence, the citizens have delegated certain powers to the federal government in the Constitution, reserving unto themselves all powers not specifically delegated. Similarly, it could be said that the members who organize a church delegate various powers to the church and its officers, directors, and committees, and that any powers not specifically delegated are reserved unto the membership.
The charter governing documents of many congregational churches limit the authority of a simple majority of members. For example, some require that sales or purchases of property, elections of ministers, and amendments to the charter or bylaws be by a two-thirds or three-fourths vote of the church membership.
The courts generally will disregard the authority of a church's members when property rights or civil liberties protected under state or federal law are violated. As one court has observed, the rights that exist by virtue of state or federal law "cannot be overridden by a majority rule of any organization—church or otherwise." Stansberry v. McCarty, 149 N.E.2d 683, 686 (Ind. 1958). See also Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Ocokoljich, 219 N.E.2d 343 (Ill. 1966).
Members are under no compulsion to adhere to the tenets of their church, but they cannot impose their beliefs upon a majority that rejects them. Katz v. Singerman, 127 So.2d 515 (La. 1961). Members of course have the right to withdraw from one church and join another. Trett v. Lambeth, 195 S.W.2d 524 (Mo. 1946); Brady v. Reiner, 198 S.E.2d 812 (W. Va. 1973). But members who withdraw or whose membership is terminated by action of the church no longer possess any authority. They have no interest in church property, and they cannot represent members in any legal action against the church. Stewart v. Jarriel, 59 S.E.2d 368 (Ga. 1950); Brady v. Reiner, 198 S.E.2d 812 (W. Va. 1973).
Several courts have noted that when persons become a member of a church, they do so upon the condition of submission to its ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and however much they may be dissatisfied with the exercise of that jurisdiction, they have no right to invoke the supervisory power of a civil court so long as their property, contract, or civil rights are not affected. Stewart v. Jarriel, 59 S.E.2d 368 (Ga. 1950). Nor may a member deny the existence of a church's bylaws. State ex rel. Morrow v. Hill, 364 N.E.2d 1156 (Ohio 1977).
Church members generally have no personal interest in church property since title ordinarily is vested in the church. If a church acquires property by a deed naming the church as grantee, the conveyance is to the church and constitutes no benefit or interest to any individual member. Presbytery of Cimarron v. Westminster Presbyterian Church, 515 P.2d 211 (Okla. 1973).
Prior to 1969 the courts commonly ruled that church property was held in trust for the use and benefit of those members adhering to the original tenets of the church, and thus a majority of the members could not abandon the tenets of the church and retain the right to use the church's property so long as a single member adhered to the original doctrines of the church. Wright v. Smith, 124 N.E.2d 363,365 (Ill. 1955) ("courts will raise and enforce an implied trust so that the majority faction cannot effect a fundamental change of doctrine"). This rule was abolished by the United States Supreme Court in 1969. In Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969), the Supreme Court held that civil courts could no longer construe or apply religious doctrine in resolving church property disputes. See generally chapter 7, infra.
Members of churches affiliated with an ecclesiastical hierarchy generally are subject to the same limitations on their authority discussed above in connection with members of congregational churches, but in addition they are limited by the bylaws and tribunals of the parent denomination. Presbytery of Cimarron v. Westminster Presbyterian Church, 515 P.2d 211 (Okla. 1973).
- A Georgia court ruled that a church's entire board had properly been dismissed by the church members at a duly called special business meeting. The court relied on the Georgia Nonprofit Corporation Code which specifies that a nonprofit corporation shall hold a special meeting "if the holders of at least 5 percent of the voting power of the corporation sign, date, and deliver to any corporate officer one or more written demands … for the meeting describing the purpose or purposes for which it is to be held," unless otherwise specified in the corporation's articles or bylaws. The court noted that the church members properly followed the Nonprofit Corporation Code in scheduling the special meeting and voting to remove the church board members. It concluded: "At the meeting, a majority of the members selected a new board of directors of the church, and they chose not to nominate or elect [the original board members]. Accordingly, following their dismissal from the board, the original board members had no authority to control the temporal assets of the church."  Members of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church v. Jackson, 603 S.E.2d 711 (Ga. App. 2004).
- An Indiana court ruled that a majority of a congregational church's members, rather than the church's board of trustees, had the legal authority to determine whether or not to retain their pastor. The court noted that for churches of "congregational" polity, "the religious organization is represented by a majority of its members," and therefore "when presented with a dispute within a church of congregational polity, our courts will uphold the majority's decision, whether that is to purchase property or even remove the minister, unless the church has established its own decision-making body with the power to override the will of the majority."  Cole v. Holt, 725 N.E.2d 145 (Ind. App. 2000).