Sunday, February 25, 2007

How to Survive Discipline -- Contest Jurisdiction (part 8)

We are moving out of methods designed to keep you in the church and into methods designed to let you leave on your own terms. Contesting jurisdiction is a classic here. Its also one of the most effective. Everything is lined up in your corner. The whole design of the excommunication process is try and get an unrepentant members of the church to either repent or be cast out. The church is ready to fight a battle on whether you are repentant or not. They aren't prepared for a battle on whether you are a member or not.

First off, most churches are perfectly happy to have you leave gracefully. The have no intention of disciplining or continuing the discipline process on someone who wants to leave. Particularly if you agree to coordinate their leaving with the elders and pastor and clean up any other unfinished business they are often quite anxious to make it amicable. Understand in advance if it is possible for you to leave gracefully. If it is and you like this method you are done. Unless you have reason to believe otherwise this is an area worth exploring. The big issue you are likely to encounter is that are going to feel they are leading you into sin by giving you permission to leave. Make it clear you intend to leave and that the only question is over terms. For most churches that's the end of it.

However some churches have very strong rules about fleeing while under discipline. Others consider leaving to be a serious offense anyway. For example many churches have explicit statements to that effect regarding terminating membership can not be done while under discipline. Others like the OPC assert that only the session can release you a member cannot quit. These sorts of churches will either convict you in your absence (for failure to appear) or even try you in absentia and you end up being excommunicated and they will sully you name.

OK so what to do. First off understand that they are absolutely in the wrong. 2000 years of church history teach that apostates can be punished for apostasy, they cannot be tried by a church court. A church court is something that is voluntary. You have an absolute right to flee. Moreover US law is clear here. Church discipline is legally protected under the free exercise clause because churches are voluntary associations. When they cease to be voluntery their rules become subject to secular court review. The Jehovah's witnesses used to consider anyone who quit the witnesses "disfellowshipped". They got their head handed legally for excommunicating non members. So they've invented another term for people who leave called "disassociated". Many conservative protestant churches don't have national organizations or if they do they haven't done enough volume of member discipline and don't quite understood the complications here. But they moment they consult with an attorney they will.

The next thing to understand is that the prosecution is going try and get you off message and address your "sin". Do not let them. There is one issue under discussion are you a member and subject to their authority
E - Joey I know that Sam has talked to you about this. Mixed dancing is a sin, if you don't stop going to mixed dances were are going to excommunicate you
J - Mr. Brown, I'm not a member here, I just started attending during college
E - You've been going here every Sunday for 3 years you are a member.
J - No I'm a member of Sun Valley Baptist back at home. I never agreed to membership here, I never signed the card or met with the session. I just show up regularly.
E - Joey you need to be under someone's oversight
J - I'm under the oversight of Sun Valley Baptist I just regularly attend here. I can stop attending if you want.
E - No we want to help you realize your errors and bring you to repentance, you are sinning.
J - That would be a good thing for one of my elders to do, but since you aren't one of my elders I don't think its appropriate to discuss my spiritual state in an atmosphere of authority with you.
E - Joey are you saved?
J - Yes. I have a covenanting relationship with Jesus just not with this church.
Joey never ever starts discussing the issue. He keeps the focus on membership. The moment he starts treating Brown like an elder his legal protection is gone until he explicitly quits. If you waver you lose, you must be sure before you go down this road. If you are going to use this method make it absolutely explicit your just some guy showing up at the church. If you can stomach it even better would be saying you are showing up because you had nothing better to do on a Sunday. The final question is a good one. It shows the Elder no longer is sure that he has authority. Joey's answer is also good.
So how do you contest jurisdiction? This is the possibilities in order of preference.
  1. You were never a member
  2. You were a member but you resigned some time in the past
  3. You thought you were a member but were mistaken
  4. You were a member and are now resigning in spite of the "no resigning rules".
#1 is far and away the easiest.
  • At least legally the burden of proof will be on them. Moreover most religious organizations believe in voluntary membership and so their own organizations will place the burden of proof will be on them that they need to prove membership before discipline can occur.
  • The minister is going to have to vindicative jerk to spend hours developing a chain of evidence that you a member just so that he can excommunicate you.
Understand though that once you agree you aren't a member the pastor or an elder can eliminate your right to attend ("toss you out") fairly freely. You avoid the actual act of excommunication but you might not be able to attend services or participate in activities. To pull #1 you'll need some reason to assert you were never a member. For example if you were child raised in the church and never made a profession of faith (or it was ambigious). If your wife or husbands signed the membership card and you didn't. If your never validly transferred (for example you were an associate member and then just started attending regularly). You can often assert that you were a regular attendy and not a member.

#2 is good one for churches that are going after college age kids. One of the really nasty things that has been going on is for churches to excommunicate kids who have moved away, and haven't gotten involved in an approved faith. However many of these churches have rules regarding transfer for moving and time limits that are in effect. Arguing that a transfer occurred was not properly documented is an excellent way to contest jurisdiction. Quite simply the church would then have to argue that it is capable of providing oversight to someone living hundreds if not thousands of miles away.
For Presbyterians we can be more specific. They have a notion of "associate member", and the assumption would be that a kid in college is an associate member of his college congregation unless he transfers. However if he were to claim that he transfered but failed to do so properly and then repents for failure to transfer properly the old congregation is going to have jurisdiction problems in trying the case. Even better if had made statements to people about "his church" meaning his college church thus proving he identified himself as having transfered.

#3 Trying someone who has renounced their baptism has been a sin so serious that it was grounds for excommunication. The inquisition wouldn't even do it. A protestant renunciation of baptism would be something of the form "I don't think I'm saved", or "I'm not a Christian" or "I don't believe I was born again". If a statement doesn't end the trial ask the minister point black if he intends try someone who had denied/renounced their baptism in a church court.

#4 This is often quite complicated. Essentially you are creating a gap between what a church is allowed to do based on tradition and law and what they want to do. I've addressed the process in a later post.

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