Pastor, Church & Law

Hierarchical Churches

§ 02.01.02

Key point 2-01.02 In hierarchical churches, ministers ordinarily are selected by church members or according to rules promulgated by a parent denomination.

Hierarchical churches generally select their ministers according to rules promulgated by a parent denomination. Some denominations give subordinate churches complete freedom in selecting ministers. Others dictate who will be the minister of each affiliated church. Many denominations provide for the selection of ministers by the combined efforts of both the denomination and the subordinate church.

When a hierarchical body or official selects a minister for a local congregation, the local congregation is without authority to affect or overrule that decision.

Case study. A Methodist bishop acting pursuant to authority granted him by the Doctrines and Disciplines of the Methodist Church appointed a minister to serve a Methodist congregation in New Orleans, Louisiana. The congregation refused to recognize the bishop’s appointment, and recognized instead a minister selected by congregational vote. In ruling in favor of the bishop, the court observed that the congregation was subject to the discipline of its denomination and accordingly had to recognize the appointment made by the bishop even though a majority of the congregation disapproved of it.6 Brooks v. Chinn, 52 So.2d 583 (La. 1951).

Case study. A Pennsylvania state appeals court ruled that a Lutheran Synod had the legal authority to dismiss the minister of a local church despite the protest of a majority of the congregation. When the congregation refused to recognize the Synod’s designated pastor, the Synod sought and received a court order forbidding the performance of any further pastoral functions at the church by the dismissed minister. The ousted minister refused to comply with the court order, which resulted in his being jailed for contempt of court.7 Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church v. May, 537 A.2d 538 (Pa. Common. 1988).

Case study. A Pennsylvania court ruled that a church board lacked the authority to remove a pastor because the church was hierarchical in nature and the board’s action was in violation of the national church’s constitution. The court noted that whether the church board had the power to take the actions it did depended on whether the church was hierarchical or congregational in nature: “The resolution of that issue was determinative because a hierarchical church is a church which consists of an authoritarian body of religious officials organized by rank and jurisdiction and reposes determination of ecclesiastical issues in a certain body, the resolution by that body being determinative. In contrast, a congregational church is one in which the local congregation has full control and final authority over church matters within its own area prescribing action by majority vote of that particular congregation. If the relationship between [the local church and national church] is hierarchical in nature, then the determinations regarding [the pastor] made by the [national church] in accordance with its constitution would control; but if [the church] was congregational, the church board would have the discretion to remove him and otherwise manage the church in accordance with the local bylaws.”8 The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Diocese of the U.S.A. v. Church Board, 749 A.2d 1003 (Common. Pa. 2000).

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