On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 183 N.J. Super. 458 (1982).
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. For reversal -- none. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J.
[93 NJ Page 104] In 1973 the members of Calvary Baptist Church of Paterson, New Jersey, elected plaintiff James Chavis as a deacon. In 1977 the Board of Deacons (Board) removed Chavis from his post as deacon, or "defrocked" him, apparently because he had fallen into disfavor with the pastor, defendant Alfred P. Rowe. Chavis and his wife, plaintiff Ophelia Chavis, instituted this action for injunctive relief and damages against the pastor and other deacons who had participated in the church action, claiming that the Board had ignored the correct procedures for removal. The Chancery Division denied an injunction and transferred the damage claim to the Law Division, where a trial produced a jury verdict in plaintiffs' favor. The Appellate Division reversed, Chavis v. Nickerson, 183 N.J. Super. 458 (1982). Plaintiffs appeal,
asserting a substantial constitutional question, R. 2:2-1(a).*fn1 We affirm, and hold that because resolution of plaintiffs' claims would require an excursion into matters of church doctrine and polity, the civil courts lack jurisdiction to entertain this case.
The Calvary Baptist Church is congregational. Unlike hierarchical churches, which are characterized by a "common ruling convocation or ecclesiastical head", Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 110, 73 S. Ct. 143, 151, 97 L. Ed. 120, 133 (1952), a congregational denomination comprises autonomous local bodies. Protestant Episcopal Church v. Graves, 83 N.J. 572, 577 (1980), cert. den. sub. nom. Moore v. Protestant Episcopal Church, 449 U.S. 1131, 101 S. Ct. 954, 67 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1981). Baptist churches traditionally have been characterized as congregational. See Baugh v. Thomas, 56 N.J. 203 (1970); Moorman v. Goodman, 59 N.J. Super. 181 (App.Div.1960). The constitution of Calvary, consistent with congregational organization, vests governing power in the membership and allows the membership to approve any affiliation or cooperation with other associations or conventions.
In addition to its constitution Calvary enacted by-laws that outline, among other things, disciplinary procedures. As plaintiffs admit, however, neither the constitution nor the by-laws spell out the procedure for removing an officer in the middle of his term. Article 3 of the by-laws empowers the deacons to "consider all matters of grievance and discipline within the church," and Article 10, section 1 directs that "[a]ll matters of discipline shall be under the jurisdiction of the Deacons and the
pastor." Unlike the procedure for expulsion, which is set forth in Article 10, section 4 of the by-laws (written notice and a hearing before the Board), removal from office receives no mention in either the constitution or the by-laws, suggesting that removal, if permitted at all, must be effected in a manner that the Board, in its discretion, chooses.
The appropriate removal procedure becomes less clear with Article 10, section 3, which directs the deacons and the pastor to present matters of "unusual" difficulty that arise between members to the church itself for "whatever disciplinary action the church may deem advisable." Finally, Article 10, section 2 provides that "[i]n private offenses, Matthew 18:15-17 shall be followed and the Baptist Manual of Polity & Practice by Maring & Hudson and the Hiscox Manual used as official reference." A "private offense" refers to injury done or claimed to have been done by one member to another. The Hiscox Standard Baptist Manual at 133 requires that such offenses be resolved ultimately by reference to the Bible, specifically Matthew 18:15-17. That passage instructs the offended one to tell of the offense "unto the church," which Hiscox interprets to require a full and fair hearing before the church members. In short, the correct removal procedure, if there is one, does not appear on the face of the relevant church documents.
Not only do the parties disagree over what procedures should have been followed, but they also disagree over what procedures were in fact followed. In April 1977, the Board sent Chavis a letter requesting his resignation. Chavis brought this letter to the congregation's attention at the quarterly meeting held on April 7, 1977. According to Pastor Rowe, the members at that meeting delegated to the Board the power to resolve the matter. Plaintiffs challenge the delegation, pointing out that the members never formally voted on sending the matter to the Board. On May 1, the Board sent Chavis a letter telling him that it had voted unanimously to expel him from deaconship. The church membership was informed of this action at the July quarterly meeting when the minutes of the April meeting were read.
According to defendants, the members at the July meeting ratified the delegation of authority that allegedly had been made at the April meeting, although ...