I promised to share why I believe there is good reason to formally resign your membership/ties with an unhealthy or abusive church. In doing some research six years ago on a slander lawsuit case involving a pastor in the United Pentecostal Church, it was discovered that it could be an important step in exiting. Please keep in mind while reading this, that I am not an attorney and am simply sharing some things I have learned through research.
I want to make very clear that I am NOT at all encouraging or saying that former members should sue their ex churches, especially not for frivolous things. However, some unhealthy churches can do serious harm to a person who left and there are times when a lawsuit may be appropriate, after much consideration, prayer and soul-searching.
Many do not realize there are legal issues involved with resigning your membership. For instance, if you are a member of an unincorporated church, you could be sued if leadership did something wrong. The church, as it is unincorporated, cannot be sued. This has been upheld in the court system. “Members of an unincorporated association are individually liable for tortious acts of agents or employees of the association if the tort is committed within the scope of their authority.” Golden v. Wilder, 4 S.W.2d 140, 143-44
In fact, this was affirmed in a case against a United Pentecostal Church in Tomball, Texas in 1991. Era L. Hutchins brought a class action lawsuit against Grace Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church, and an employee, Clifford Parker. (At the time, Danny Carpenter was the pastor.) It seems the church was using her property and stopped paying rent. The church had entered into a five-year lease with Hutchins and extended it verbally after five years. It appears for ten years afterward, the church continued payments and then refused starting in 1987. At some point Parker allegedly promised to help with two of the lots and instead took the property at a tax sale.
The church fought allowing Hutchins to file a class action suit, but a Court of Appeals in Texas stated, “In brief, the Church wants both the advantage of an unincorporated entity (no liability for the entity), and at the same time wants the advantage of a corporate entity (no liability for its members).”
I don’t know what happened to her lawsuit for back rent and the trustees allegedly defrauding her out of property. However, this case clearly shows that if you are a member of an unincorporated church, there is the possibility that you could personally be held liable for the wrongdoings of the church. It is definitely something to think about if you are part of an unhealthy church.
There is also a more important legal issue involved which protects you when you resign and has been upheld in various court cases across the USA.
Normally the courts do not become involved in matters between churches and their members, even over discipline. That is part of the separation of church and state in this country. Yet when a person resigns and thus formally cuts ties with a church, that church no longer has freedom to ‘discipline’ them. Things that an unhealthy church might get away with while you are officially a member, legally they no longer have a leg to stand on when you sever those ties. The legal system can and has become involved once one is no longer a member.
Should the former church slander you in such a way as to cause harm or do anything else harmful, you might only be able to combat that legally if you resigned your membership BEFORE those things happened. This came into play with the lawsuit previously mentioned. A former church has no right to deal with you, discipline you, etc. after you resign. If you do not resign membership, the courts view it as you being subject to the discipline of the church.
This link will take you to an article that will shed additional light on the subject, giving some background on legal cases. It is because of this, that I now feel turning in a letter of resignation is a good idea when leaving an unhealthy or abusive church.
Leaving An Unhealthy Church #1: You and Those Who Remain
Leaving An Unhealthy Church #2: Anything You Say Can, And Will, Be Used Against You
Leaving An Unhealthy Church #3: Why It May Be Important To Resign Your Membership
Leaving An Unhealthy Church #4: Remaining in the Same Organization
Leaving An Unhealthy Church #5: Don’t Listen To The Gossip
Leaving an Unhealthy Church #6: How You Are Treated
Leaving an Unhealthy Church #7: It Happens To Ministers, Too
Leaving an Unhealthy Church #8: The Way Of The Transgressor Is Hard!
Leaving an Unhealthy Church #9: Some Must Return To Remember Why They Left
Leaving An Unhealthy Church #10: Sorting Through The Teachings
Leaving an Unhealthy Church #11: Confusion & Not Knowing Who or What to Believe
Leaving An Unhealthy Church #12: Can I Go To A Church Where I Don’t Agree With Everything?