Pastor Guilty of Defamation From the Pulpit

By Raul Rivera

Key point:  There are times when a pastor, from the pulpit, deals with a difficult situation without knowing that he/she may legally be found liable of defamation.

I want to share with you some areas that pastor's rarely consider when it comes to the pulpit.  Have you ever given thought to defamation?  By definition, it is classified as anything you say or write about another that is found to be false, or that injures the other person.  The definition sounds simple, but leave it to a court and the definition becomes much more broad.  Many courts consider valid the argument brought up by some who say, "The church said it about me just to bring me injury."  A church in Southern California and its pastor were sued for statements made concerning a woman whose actions were described as, "cursing,  . . . being hateful as a human could be, . . .and acting as one of the major enemies of God's Church."  The woman sued the church and its pastor in court for "defamation, infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy" and was awarded $260,000 in compensatory damages, and $1,000,000 in punitive damages.

What to do to avoid defamation

If you pastor a church long enough, the day will come when you will have to deal with an individual whose actions are disturbing.  How you deal with such matters requires an additional layer of wisdom.  We live in a time where the fear of God and respect for the church has declined significantly.  So how and what you say during trying times of discord with an individual can reduce the likelihood of litigation against you and the church.  Let me give three things that the church in California could have done to guard the pulpit from litigation.

  1. Only announce matters of common interest:  It is very important that an article be contained in your bylaws that deals with matters of common interest.  The behavior of a member may not be a matter of common interest to other members and may be considered public disclosure of private facts.  This alone gives fuel to an accusation of defamation because the individual may claim it was made public only to injure.  One simple amendment to your church bylaws will deal with this issue.  Let me explain.  The courts have a doctrine called qualified privileged.  This doctrine protects the communication of information that is of common interest or mutual concern.  So if your bylaws make excommunication or the unrepentant acts of a church member a matter of common interest to the church, then if you feel that it is necessary to announce an issue you can.  If you do not have that statement in your bylaws then it is best to reconsider.

  2. Avoid conclusions of law:  The California church made a statement that the woman was "acting as one of the major enemies of God's Church."  That is a conclusive statement.  What if they had said, "Her actions exhibited repetitive behavior consistent with James 4:4, which this council believes is contrary to God's laws"?  There is a big difference between describing a behavior and actually making a conclusion.  They both said the same thing, but one made it an ecclesiastical matter that was settled by the church while the other left it open to neutral interpretation, which is what a court needs in order to hear the case.

Defamation can be a legal pitfall more than a matter of truth

Pastors do not normally intend to defame or conspire to injure another person.  In many ways defamation is a legal pitfall because one may be found guilty of it for just telling the truth.  I am not encouraging you to shy away from the truth.  Rather, what I am encouraging you to do is apply an additional layer of wisdom when presenting the truth about another person by following two simple steps.

  1. Know what you hope to accomplish:  Are you doing it because you are angry with the other or trying to protect your own reputation?  Do you truly have a redemptive purpose?  You know your heart and why you say what you say.

  2. The truth promotes instruction:  We all learn from each other's mistakes.  The key is that we learn.  Galatians 6:1 warns in regards to another person's sins that we should take heed because we, too, may be tempted.   If you find that making a matter known is in the best interest of the church, let the truth be presented in a way that promotes instruction.  Proverbs 16:23 says, "The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction" (NKJV). 

You will find that when the truth is presented through this layer of wisdom, you will become a fearless proclaimer, knowing you did it the right way with God and man.

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