The Discipline of Church Members

The Iowa Supreme Court issues an important ruling.

Article summary.
Churches occasionally are compelled to discipline unruly members. These members sometimes sue their church, claiming that their discipline was defamatory, inflicted emotional distress, or violated the church’s internal rules. Most courts refuse to resolve such lawsuits on the ground that a church’s decisions regarding membership eligibility is an inherently ecclesiastical matter over which the civil courts lack jurisdiction. Such as the conclusion reached by the Iowa Supreme Court in an important decision.

Some churches, when confronted with an unruly or disruptive member who creates dissension within the congregation, respond by either disciplining the individual or dismissing him or her from church membership. Some church leaders resist administering discipline for fear of legal reprisals. This fear is not entirely unfounded, since disciplined members occasionally sue their church on the basis of a number of perceived wrongs including defamation, infliction of emotional distress, and a violation of church procedures. However, most courts that have addressed such lawsuits have dismissed them on the ground that they lack jurisdiction to resolve them. This was the conclusion of the Iowa Supreme Court in an important decision. This article will review the facts of this case, discuss the court’s ruling, and then assess the significance of the case to other churches and ministers.


In 1990 a member (“John”) in a local Reformed Church was suspended and later excommunicated in a disciplinary action taken by the church’s governing body. The church is affiliated with the Reformed Church of America, a hierarchical body with an established structure and procedures. The governing body of the local church is the consistory, which is made up of the installed ministers of the local church, the elders, and the deacons. The members of the board of elders are the elected spiritual leaders of the church and have the power to discipline members of the congregation. That power includes the power of excommunication.

John had been a member of the church for most of his life. His parents were founding members, and his father donated the land where the church is now located. In 1986 John became concerned over the direction the church was taking when his wife lost her job as janitor of the church and the church’s senior pastor introduced the practice of “spiritual healing.” The introduction of spiritual healing caused discord in the congregation. John became involved in a movement to remove the pastor from the church. The pastor left the church in 1989.

There was great discord in the church, so an interim pastor was immediately selected who was specially trained in interim ministry to assist troubled churches through their difficulties and make them viable again. John became angry with the interim pastor because he thought he was encouraging his wife to divorce him and his son to disobey him. In April of 1990 the board of elders temporarily suspended John’s privileges of membership and barred him from attending the church services. The congregation was informed of this move. Later the elders asked the police to be present at the church in case John showed up and attempted to disrupt services.

In May of 1990, a church member wrote a letter making formal charges against John. The charges instituted excommunication proceedings. The letter stated, in part:

EXT I feel that the time has come to place before the elders of the [church] the formation of actual written charges against [John] as a member …. These charges come only after much prayer and serious consideration and are being brought forth out of great concern for the well—being of all members of [the church]. The specific charges which are to follow do not come out of any personal vendetta … but rather out of the deep desire for the problems to be resolved for our church. It appears that everyone involved is anxious to get this over with so that we can all get on with our lives. The charges which I am about to present involve the offensive behavior patterns … as witnessed to over a period of time. Some of these offensive behaviors I have witnessed personally; others come from the shared testimony of others. I am hereby charging him with abusing his privileges as a member of the church and for disrupting the communion of the body of Christ. The examples of the offensive behaviors are as follows: First of all, there have been the relentless and demanding phone calls from [him] over a period of the past several months. This includes the many, many phone calls I have personally received, as well as that reported to me by [pastors of the church] and the other elders. These phone calls have been offensive, abusive, harassing, disruptive and threatening in nature. [John] has personally made such statements about [the interim pastor] to me as: “He is a life wrecker, traitor and marriage wrecker”; “I’m going to an institution because of him; My teeth will go a long ways in him”; “I’m going to kick him in the shins” ….

EXT [John] phoned [me again] and demanded a meeting with the consistory on Sunday April 29 and if he did not get his way that he would actually disrupt that morning’s worship services. [He] phoned late that night of April 28 and demanded that I should go over to [the interim pastor’s] house and “kick him out.”

EXT On Sunday April 29 [the interim pastor’s wife] answered the parsonage phone and after telling who he was [John] asked if “Judas was there”?, then went on to ask her “what it was like to live with a Judas”? He also asked her what she thought of “someone who breaks up a marriage”? He also informed her that he “got his directions from God” and that “God was on his side.” At about this time [John] also referred to me as “Judas”. To the best of my knowledge I have stated the above as accurately as possible.

A trial to the church judiciary was held in June of 1990 and John was found guilty of the charges. He was notified that if he failed to show marks of repentance, the board of elders would proceed to excommunication. At a July meeting between John and the elders, the conversation heated up and an elder exploded and called John a “lying bastard.” The elder later apologized to John for the outburst. Later, the board of elders met and voted to excommunicate John. The board sent him a letter informing him that he would be excommunicated from the church effective July 21. The congregation was informed on July 22 that John had been excommunicated.

In September of 1990 the clerk of the consistory sent a letter to John informing him that the consistory of the church, including the interim pastor, would no longer accept any telephone calls from him and that any future calls from him would be considered harassment.

In December the church hired a new pastor to start in February of 1991. The new pastor decided not to become involved in the former conflict. He asked the board of elders to write John a letter informing him that he would not accept his phone calls.

John sued the church, and various pastors and elders, on the basis of the following alleged wrongs:

(1) failure by the church and denominational agencies to follow their ecclesiastical procedures in the excommunication process

(2) defamation

(3) intentional infliction of emotional distress (also called “outrageous conduct”)

John alleged that nine statements made by the defendants were defamatory and constituted outrageous conduct: (1) A letter informing John he was being temporarily suspended from privileges of membership and attending services and setting forth the reasons for the suspension. (2) An oral communication to the church members that John’s privileges of membership and attending services were temporarily suspended. (3) A letter informing John he was excommunicated from the church. (4) An oral communication to the church members that John had been excommunicated. (5) Statements made the week of July 22 through July 28, 1990, allegedly informing church members not to communicate with John. (6) The letter initiating excommunication proceedings against John. (7) A letter from the board of elders mentioning John’ excommunication. (8) The letter informing John that any attempts to call the interim pastor and the members of the consistory would be considered harassment. (9) The letter informing John that the new pastor would not accept his telephone calls and that any calls to him would be considered harassment.

The church asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit. The court dismissed all charges, and John appealed.

The court’s ruling

The court reached the following conclusions with regard to the three allegations of wrongdoing contained in John’s lawsuit.

failure to follow church procedure

John appealed the church’s decision to excommunicate him to the regional synod—the final court of appeal from all cases originally heard by a board of elders. The synod affirmed the decision to excommunicate him. John insisted that “proper procedures” were not followed in the excommunication proceedings. The court ruled that John’s dismissal was an internal church matter over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction. It observed: “The general rule is that civil courts will not interfere in purely ecclesiastical matters, including membership in a church organization or church discipline. Iowa’s civil courts have a long tradition of refraining from interfering in purely ecclesiastical matters.” The court referred to an earlier decision of the Iowa Supreme Court involving a lawsuit by individuals who had been expelled from church membership. The plaintiffs in that case asked a civil court to reverse their expulsions. The Iowa Supreme Court refused to do so, and observed: “[O]rdinarily the courts have no jurisdiction over, and no concern with, purely ecclesiastical questions and controversies, including membership in a church organization ….” Brown v. Mt. Olive Baptist Church, 124 N.W.2d 445 (1963).

The court concluded: “[The church’s decision to excommunicate [John] was purely ecclesiastical in nature, and therefore we will not interfere with the action. Interfering with the decision would contravene both our history of leaving such matters to ecclesiastical officials and the first and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution.”


John claimed that although the alleged defamatory statements were made in an ecclesiastical context, defamation involves his civil rights and therefore it was appropriate for a civil court to exercise jurisdiction over his claim. The court rejected this basis of liability. First, it pointed out that defamation requires “publication” of the defamatory material to persons other than the individual who claims to have been defamed. Since at least four of the letters that John claimed were defamatory were sent only to him, they could not be defamatory.

Further, the court pointed out that truth “is a complete defense to defamation,” and therefore oral communications to church members that John’s membership was being temporarily suspended and that he had been excommunicated merely conveyed true and non—defamatory information to the congregation.

The court also found that all of the allegedly defamatory statements made by church officials were protected by a qualified privilege from being defamatory. The court explained the concept of “qualified privilege” as follows:

EXT The qualified privilege arises from the necessity of full and unrestricted communication concerning a matter in which the parties have an interest or duty, and is not restricted within narrow limits. A qualified privilege applies to otherwise defamatory statements when the statements are made in good faith on any subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest, or in reference to which that person has a right or duty, if made to a person having a corresponding interest or duty in a manner and under circumstances fairly warranted by the occasion. The elements of a qualified privilege are (1) good faith, (2) an interest to be upheld, (3) a statement limited in its scope to this purpose, (4) a proper occasion, and (5) publication in a proper manner and to proper parties ….

EXT We believe it is appropriate to apply a qualified privilege to statements made in the context of a church disciplinary proceeding. The May 31 letter constituted formal disciplinary charges against [John]. The statements in the letter were made by a church elder who had a duty imposed by the church to look after the spiritual well—being of the church members. The statements were made only to other church officials who would have a role in the disciplinary proceedings. Any statements made during the course of the ecclesiastical trial would also be qualifiedly privileged.

Even untrue statements may be qualifiedly privileged. The privilege, however, only protects statements made without actual malice …. Actual malice requires proof that the statement was made with ill—will, hatred, the desire to do another harm, or wrongful motive. It may also result from reckless or wanton disregard of the rights of others.

John claimed that church officials acted with malice in communicating some of the information about him. As proof, he cited evidence that (1) a neighboring pastor who assisted the church in finding an interim pastor assisted John’s wife in filing commitment papers against him, and (2) a one—time elder allegedly remarked that the church would be better off without certain families. The court concluded that this information did not prove actual malice on the part of church officials. The neighboring pastor was “not a defendant in this case, so his actions are irrelevant to whether these defendants acted with actual malice.” And, the former elder who made the other statement was “not a defendant and was not on the board of elders when [John] was disciplined. His statement cannot be attributed to the defendants.” As a result, the court concluded that “no actual malice exists and the statements are qualifiedly privileged.”

intentional infliction of emotional distress

John’s lawsuit claimed that the nine allegedly defamatory comments statements constituted “outrageous conduct” by the church officials which caused him to be severely and emotionally distressed. The court noted that “outrageous conduct” or intentional infliction of emotional distress requires proof of the following four elements: (1) outrageous conduct by the alleged perpetrator; (2) the perpetrator’s intentional causing, or reckless disregard of the probability of causing emotional distress; (3) the victim’s suffering severe or extreme emotional distress; and (4) actual and proximate causation of the emotional distress by the perpetrator’s outrageous conduct.

The court added that

EXT to be outrageous, the conduct must be so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. There must be substantial evidence of extreme conduct: It has not been enough that the defendant has acted with an intent which is tortious or even criminal, or that [he or she] has intended to inflict emotional distress, or even that [his or her] conduct has been characterized by malice, or a degree of aggravation that would entitle the plaintiff to punitive damages for another tort.”

John insisted that the filing of commitment papers against him constituted outrageous conduct. However, the court pointed out that the papers were executed by John’s own wife and a neighboring pastor. Therefore, “because neither is a defendant in this action that conduct is irrelevant.” While acknowledging that John “is understandably disappointed” with the church’s actions, “we do not believe a [jury] could reasonably conclude their conduct rose to the level of outrageousness.”

Significance to other churches and ministers

What is the relevance of this ruling to other churches? Obviously, a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court is of limited significance since it has no direct or binding effect in any other state. Nevertheless, there a number of aspects to the ruling that will be instructive to church leaders in every state. Consider the following:

1. Failure to follow church procedures. The Iowa Supreme Court, like nearly every other court that has addressed the issue in recent years, concluded that a church’s decision to discipline or dismiss a member is an inherently ecclesiastical matter over which the civil courts lack jurisdiction. This is so even if a dismissed member claims that the church failed to follow its own bylaws or other internal rules in disciplining or dismissing him or her. Church leaders should be familiar with the church’s internal rules, and strive to follow them. But most courts refuse to resolve lawsuits by disgruntled members who claim that a church failed to follow these rules.

2. Defamation. Church leaders sometimes confront potentially explosive issues, such as the discipline or dismissal of a member or trusted employee on the basis of misconduct that is known only to a few. Members of a congregation react with confusion and even anger to what is perceived to be an arbitrary action by the church leadership. Church leaders often are reluctant to disclose the basis for their decision for fear of being sued. This case illustrates that the law provides a measure of protection to church leaders under these circumstances who want to make appropriate disclosures of information. Such disclosures will not be defamatory if they communicate truthful information, or if they are protected by a qualified privilege. As the court pointed out:

EXT A qualified privilege applies to otherwise defamatory statements when the statements are made in good faith on any subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest, or in reference to which that person has a right or duty, if made to a person having a corresponding interest or duty in a manner and under circumstances fairly warranted by the occasion.

That is, statements by church members or officials to other members of officials on matters of common interest are protected by a qualified privilege, which means that they cannot be defamatory unless made with actual malice. The court defined actual malice as

“ill—will, hatred, the desire to do another harm, or a wrongful motive. It may also result from reckless or wanton disregard of the rights of others.”

3. Intentional infliction of emotional distress. Many persons have claimed that a church’s actions caused them emotional distress. As this court noted, the concept of “intentional infliction of emotional distress” is clearly defined and will rarely apply to a church. Few church actions or decisions will “be outrageous … so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

John v. Estate of Hartgerink, 528 N.W.2d 539 (Iowa 1995)

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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