Expelling Members Without a Trial
Christian Recorder: October 16, 1890
Dear Bishop – Is it lawful for a pastor to expel a member before the public congregation without trying him before a committee for the charges alleged that they may find him guilty or declare him innocent? Please answer through the Recorder. Some of us have been treated in this way.
Hoping you are well;
Dear Layman: - I shall comply with your request answer your interrogatory solely upon the ground of its magnitude and to make it an opportune occasion to answer more than you have asked.
No, it is not lawful for a pastor to proceed in any such manner against a member, guilty or not guilty. The African M. E. Church is under the rule, is a church of government and every man or women in it is subject to written law, and no one holds his membership at the whim of another. If membership in our church hung upon such a capricious tenure it would be worth very little. I am sure it would not be worth a six months probationary ordeal. That the pastor has the right to grade the punishment of a guilty member, except in cases of gross immorality, will not be questioned by anyone acquainted with Episcopal Methodist law and usages. And even when a charge is made against a member alleging the act to be gross immorality, the pastor has the right to determine whether the allegation is true or false. For the church assumes that he is better acquainted with the laws of God and the Book of Discipline that the laity and the presumption is more obligatory where the law is specific. But for a pastor to constitute himself both judge and jury is simply monstrous.
If a member confesses him or herself guilty of the crime alleged, the pastor cannot even then expel the accused until the party is declared guilty by a committee.
Bishop Hedding says, “There is no case in which a pastor may expel a member except a judgment of guilty be first rendered by laymen.”
Bishop Baker and Bishop Payne say the same. But it is needless to quote authorities, for they are innumerable. That fact that a pastor cannot expel a member without the judgment of a committee, or the church of which he is a member when he confesses himself guilty of the crime alleged, is a sufficient answer to your question.
So rigid is our law in protecting the standing of our members that it does not allow a member to misrepresent themselves. Hence they have got to be found guilty before they are guilty, in the eyes of our law. The pastor, however, may not proceed with the regular forms of trial after confession is made, he may simply submit it to the committee and await their decision.
I believe Bishop Payne has decided that wherever a whole church rebels against law and authority, the pastor may expel the whole congregation. But such instances are so extraordinary and thaumaturgic, that no legislative provision has ever been made to meet such a contingency. Therefore, if I have quoted our senior correctly, he predicates his decision more upon legal postulations, than upon specific law. In other words, he voices the general principles of Methodistic Law and Ecclesiastical Usages.
But there are some pastors who would rather expel forty members than take one into the church. They seem to have a mania for hunting down and turning out all the members they can, that some other minister has sung, prayed, preached, exhorted and labored to get into the church. They never think of trying to leave more members than they found at a church, but their soul desire seems to leave as few as possible when they start conference; and this will be the case as long as our churches make it a rule to send their most pestiferous and worthless local preachers up to the annual conference merely to get rid of them. It appears if a church has a local preacher that is not worth his salt, except to keep up a disturbance, he of all other men is the one they pack off to the annual conference for membership and when the secret is discovered they simply wanted to rid themselves of his bother. A man who is no account in one sphere will be no account in another. A man who is too lazy to carry a hod will be too lazy to preach the gospel. A man who is too mean to work for God, and let others be at peace in the capacity of a local preacher, will be too mean to run the church when you lift him up into the itinerant works.
But let me say now in conclusion, I have no great sympathy for any member of our church who does not protect his membership. There is a book entitled, “Methodist Polity,” published by our Book Concern in Philadelphia, and has the approval of the General Conference, and the entire Council of Bishops, which was written by the author of this epistle. Among the numerous subjects treated, elaborated and simplified, is the trial of lay members. When I wrote that chapter, after consulting the best Methodist authorities in the world, I submitted it to several ministers of our own church, and to some able ministers of the M. E. church, and the M. E. church South, and then I submitted it to two able lawyers and finally to a Supreme Court Judge. Nor did I give it to the printer until I was assured that it not only embodied almost every phase of Methodist law but that it contained all of the civil forms of justice and equity. Now, with the endorsement of the Council of Bishops, if our laymen are too neglectful to purchase it and arm themselves with the knowledge of their rights, or to employ an attorney to do it for them, they have nobody to blame but themselves.
If young single ladies can be thoughtful enough to buy that book, and go before their pastors and committees and defend themselves, and save their membership, and old gray-headed and bald-headed men cannot do it, they must simply take the consequences. For if they will purchase Methodist Polity and study the chapter on the trial of lay members, they will not have to bother any bishop about writing decisions through the columns of the Christian Recorder, or the “Southern Christian Recorder,” or the “Quarterly Review.”
In regard to expelling members before a congregation of saints and sinners, I have only to say I think it is very improper. This should be done either at a church meeting or at the close of love feast services.
The old barbarous mode of ecclesiastics excommunicating members, and hurling at them a volley of anathematizations has long since become obsolete in the Protestant churches. Rather than go to the extreme in that direction, I would prefer to adopt the custom of Rev. Dr. Davidson, write to the expelled member the following note and say no more about it.
“My dear unfortunate brother, this is to notify you, that having been found guilty of a crime forbidden in the word of God, by your Christian and sympathizing brethren, that you are hereby expelled, not from the use of the church, and the benefits of the pulpit, but from the benefits of a communicant member. We will all be glad to serve you in any way possible, and shall pray for your speedy return.”
Your weeping brother,
Nevertheless, my dear laymen; expulsions will follow when law and rule are protractedly disregarded. The pastor is duty bound to protect the dignity of the law of the church. But there is no condemnation to those who walk in the ways of the Lord Jesus Christ.
There was an old saying which holds good today, even in the church of God. “Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur.” (The judge is condemned when the guilty are acquitted)