But that’s not all. After setting up this process, the FBC-Jax leaders put on their steel-toe boots and delivered this kicker of a clause:
"By joining this Church, all members agree that biblical conciliation efforts shall provide the sole remedy for any dispute arising against the Church. All members waive the right to file any legal action against the Church in a civil court or agency."
I know bylaws are boring, but no one should snooze on this one. This bylaws clause is designed to cripple any who might attempt to bring church wrongdoing into the light of day.
These are bully bylaws.
No matter how egregious the conduct of the church’s leaders may be, members who seek to challenge them will find themselves paralyzed. Their backs were broken when these bylaws were adopted, and they didn’t even realize it.
Consider these hypothetical scenarios:
- The pastor’s brother-in-law needs work, and so the pastor gives him a job driving the church bus, even though the pastor knows the man has 2 drunk-driving convictions. Predictably, tragedy strikes. When the church refuses payment on the kids’ mounting medical bills, parents seek to hold the church accountable in court.
- A church secretary grows weary of a minister’s lewd jokes. When the jokes turn to butt-grabs, she complains to the senior pastor, who suggests that she shouldn’t talk about it if she values her job. The secretary wants to file a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- A church member, who’s an accountant, begins to suspect financial mismanagement and fraud. No one can give a straight answer on where the money’s going and no one will allow access to the church’s financial records. The only way the member can see the records is if she gets a court order.
- Parents learn that their child was sexually molested by a staff-minister. Then they learn that the minister had a prior molestation conviction in another state. They’re devastated, but when they talk with the senior pastor, he minimizes the “mishap” and lectures them on forgiveness. The parents decide to file a lawsuit.
In all of these cases, the complaining church members would face an immediate roadblock. The church would pull forth this bully bylaw and contend that the member had voluntarily waived their right to any legal action.
“But surely a court wouldn’t enforce such a clause,” you say?
Maybe and maybe not. It would depend on the judge.
But in all likelihood, long before it’s ever put before a judge, the bully bylaw will have served its purpose of deterring people from bringing wrongs to light.
Many will find that they simply cannot muster the money, the time, or the will to litigate it. They may leave the church, but they won’t invest the energy it would take to get past the hurdle of having a court declare the bully bylaw unenforceable.
By squelching lawsuits, the bully bylaw also squelches the primary way that people have of getting ugly information into the public eye. The bully bylaw preserves secrecy.
Even if a church member chose to challenge the bully bylaw, it would still serve to at least stall the truth-seeking process. While waiting for a judge to decide the bylaw’s legal enforceability, the ugly factual issues -- the ones about sexual harassment, child molestation, drunk-driving, or financial mismanagement -- would take a back seat and remain out of the spotlight.
Not only would it take some time, but it would also take some money to litigate the enforceability of the bully bylaw. The issue may raise First Amendment constitutional questions; so it could get expensive. But of course, that’s not a problem for the church leaders. They’ve got all those offering plate dollars to pay their lawyers.
But ordinary church members aren’t likely to have such a ready pool of cash. They’ll probably need to find a lawyer who’s willing to front the costs and work on a percentage basis. Maybe they’ll find such a lawyer, but it will certainly be more difficult because any lawyer will readily see that the bully bylaw makes the case riskier and more expensive.
Now consider what FBC-Jax offers church members as a replacement for their right to bring civil lawsuits. The bully bylaws say that the Florida Baptist Convention can arbitrate a church member’s grievance against the church.
So here’s my question: Why doesn’t local church autonomy preclude the Florida Baptist Convention from interfering?
Baptist leaders have repeatedly insisted that local church autonomy precludes state and national conventions from creating a professionally-staffed clergy abuse review board. But if local church autonomy doesn’t preclude a statewide Baptist convention from offering churches the resource of an arbitration panel for members’ complaints, why does local church autonomy preclude a statewide Baptist convention from offering churches the resource of a review board to assess clergy abuse reports?
Don’t scratch your head too hard. There’s nothing logical about it.
First Baptist of Jacksonville is a Southern Baptist flagship mega-church. It’s hosting a 4-day Pastors’ Conference that starts tomorrow, and the church’s senior pastor, Mac Brunson, will be a featured speaker.
Ironically, the advertised theme of the Jacksonville conference is “Healthy Pastors, Healthy Churches.”
I wonder whether Mac Brunson will be teaching other pastors how to build “healthy churches” through the use of bully bylaws.
Information about the FBC-Jax bylaws was derived from