Fighting in the Fold: A Look at Church Conflict

On January 23, 2009, the Supreme Court of British Columbia released their decision in Lutzv. Faith Lutheran Church of Kelowna, 2009 BCSC59, a case concerning a church fight gone terribly wrong.  In early 2007, the Faith Lutheran Church of Kelowna was a small congregation of 110 members.  They had recently hired a new pastor.  Their National Convention was in July and it was announced that the denomination would hold a vote to decide whether to bless same-sex unions.  Ultimately, a Church dispute arose primarily between the pastor and certain members over whether the Pastor was required to consult the Church before she proceeded to vote.   The Pastor eventually formed a Discipline Committee, of which she was a member, and the members in dispute were removed from membership.  The members petitioned the Courts to restore their membership.

The Court found that the Pastor had appointed herself both prosecutor and judge of a matter that concerned her personally, noting, "It is a basic principle of natural justice that to avoid bias, 'no one should be judge in their own cause'."  In addition, the Court found several instances of non-compliance with the Church's own bylaws including the failure to comply with Matthew 18:15-18, a scripture which the Church had specifically committed to follow.  The Court ordered the Church to restore the membership of those it had removed.

This case presents an unfortunate example of the pitfalls of Church disputes.  But also it identifies solutions for Churches to implement.

Develop and Implement a Fair ADR Process

This case highlights the need for Churches to develop their own dispute resolution policy.  If you cannot address conflicts within the Church, the Court will have to step in and do it for you, at great expense and public embarrassment.

Follow Your Own Rules

It is not enough to have rules; you have to be prepared to follow them.  The Faith Lutheran Church had bylaws concerning conflict resolution but did not follow them.  Furthermore, they specifically committed to following Matthew 18 but failed to do so.  It is a sad day when the secular courts must instruct Churches to follow their own scripture.

Uphold Principles of Natural Justice

The principles of natural justice include the right for individuals to know why they are being expelled or disciplined, have an opportunity respond to those allegations and have an unbiased tribunal decide the question.  Churches must recognize that legal principles bind them in these circumstances.

Consider the Parties Involved

One of the primary faults of the Faith Lutheran Church was that they allowed the Pastor at the centre of the dispute to be intimately involved in the handling of the dispute.

Assess the Context and Consequences

One interesting observation made by the Judge was the need for special consideration to be given to the significance of the discipline and expulsion.  He stated, "I infer that to be judged guilty of conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the body of Christ is much more significant to a Christian churchgoer than to be judged insufficiently collegial or in breach of club rules by a golf club or other social club formed to promote social interests.

Clearly, the pursuit of peace is a worthy undertaking.  It is the wisdom of angels and a favoured blessing of God, appearing in 247 verses in the Bible1.  Peace, however, does not mean the avoidance of conflict at all costs.  As Ronald Reagan said, "Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means".  The case of Lutz illustrates the need for Churches everywhere to develop peaceful means by which to resolve inevitable conflict with the knowledge that if they do not find a way to solve it, Courts will have to do it for them.


[1] New International Version

NOTE:  This article was written by Meghan A. Maddigan, a lawyer who practices charties law at the law firm of Kuhn & Company.  It is only intended as a guide and cannot cover every situation.  It is important to get legal advice for specific situations.  If you have questions or comments about this case or other charity law matters, please contact us at 604-864-8877.