TOM SLAGLE, ET AL.
THE CHURCH OF THE FIRST BORN OF TENNESSEE, ET AL.
Session December 15, 2015
from the Chancery Court for Robertson County No. CH11CV10274,
CH11CV10702 Laurence M. McMillan, Jr., Chancellor.
dispute among members of a church arose over control of the
church. One group of church members incorporated, and then
individual members of the church filed suit against the
corporation and a second entity that operated a school on
church property. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the
trial court determined that the organizational structure of
the church was "connectional" or
"hierarchical" in nature and that all property of
the church was under the control of the church's board of
deacons. Because we conclude that there are genuine issues of
material fact that preclude entry of summary judgment, we
affirm in part and reverse in part.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Affirmed in Part; Reversed in Part; and Remanded.
L. Crain, Brentwood, Tennessee, and Joshua R. Denton and D.
Hiatt Collins, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants,
Church of the First Born of Tennessee, Inc. and Dayspring
Haynes, Goodlettsville, Tennessee; Keith Jordan, Nashville,
Tennessee; and J. Thomas Smith, Franklin, Tennessee, for the
appellees, Tom Slagle, Billy H. Ray, Earl B. Thompson, Kelvin
Gregory, Chester H. Cole, Gary Kelley, Roger Ray, Michael
Spears, and COFB Association.
Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Andy D. Bennett and Richard H. Dinkins, JJ., joined.
NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE.
Church of the First Born
1933, Prator Donald "P.D." Hardin formed the Church
of the Firstborn (the "Church"), acting as its
first elder/overseer. As elder/overseer, he served as the
pastor and spiritual leader of the Church.
Hardin led the construction of the Church's first
building in New Deal, Sumner County, Tennessee, in 1936.
During that same time period, a Church congregation also met
at Hartsville in Trousdale County. Later Church congregations
would meet in Portland in Sumner County and Nashville in
Davidson County. But, by the 1980s, the Church had only two
locations: Hartsville in Trousdale County and White House in
of spiritual matters, governance of the Church, an
unincorporated association, could best be described as
informal. Trustees held title to real property owned by the
Church and executed documents on behalf of the Church. A
board of deacons handled many of the business and temporal
affairs of the Church. Historically, the elder/overseer
selected deacons, but the manner for selection of trustees is
a matter of dispute. Although P.D. Hardin allegedly drafted
bylaws for the Church, the precise role of deacons and, to a
lesser extent, the trustees in the Church is also disputed.
Hardin remained as elder/overseer of the Church until his
death on September 19, 1983. Before his passing, he selected
his nephew, Bob C. Hardin, to succeed him. During Bob
Hardin's tenure as the elder/overseer, the Church began
construction of a private Christian school on land in
Robertson County adjoining the White House sanctuary. The
school, which was named Dayspring Academy, opened in August
Hardin died in 2008 without naming a successor
elder/overseer. He had, however, selected Robbie Kline to be
the pastor of the Hartsville congregation and Roger Brewer to
be the pastor of the White House congregation. At Bob
Hardin's death, the board of deacons had seven members:
John Edward Andrews, Mickey Andrews, Kelvin Gregory, Jon
James, Billy H. Ray, Tom Slagle, and Earl B.
Elder Bob Hardin's death in 2008, disagreements arose
amongst the Church's members. The underlying basis for
the disagreements is itself a matter of dispute. Some members
claim that the dispute centers over "the Church's
doctrinal position on the sacrament of baptism and its
twenty-year long practice of using a Hebrew version of the
name of God as a central tenant." Others trace the
disagreements to Dayspring Academy and the "substantial
and continuing costs of subsidizing" its operation.
the precise timeline is unclear, dissension grew, and the
members chose sides. Certain members, including deacons, who
formerly worshiped at White House, moved their attendance to
Hartsville. The minutes of the March 13, 2010 meeting of the
deacons reflect the tensions between those attending services
in White House and those attending services in Hartsville.
the meeting, which was held in White House, the chairman of
the deacons, Tom Slagle, complained that Church members who
attended in Hartsville were being asked to leave the premises
in White House. After commenting that the Church had no
leader, he advocated for the "deacons to take
charge" and "to put all this to rest." The
minutes reflect that the deacons voted "to take control
of all functions of the Church of the Firstborn."
Slagle sent a letter to Roger Brewer, pastor at White House,
advising him of the vote of the deacons. The letter, dated
March 13, 2010, stated that the deacons would assume control
of the following functions of the Church, "just to name
1. Security of the Church of the Firstborn, Dayspring
Academy, and all property owned by Church of the Firstborn
2. Taping program
3. Official record of attendance and all official functions
of the secretary of the Church of the Firstborn
5. All business functions of the Church of the Firstborn and
board of deacons meeting on Saturday, August 7, 2010, the
deacons discussed a meeting in Hartsville the previous
Sunday. As relayed by the deacons, members worshipping in
Hartsville expressed concerns about the Church's
finances, the funding of Dayspring Academy, unmet needs in
Hartsville, and their lack of input on spending. Some members
wanted to separate the offerings from Hartsville and White
House, and some objected to their offerings being used to
fund Dayspring Academy. Concerns also included the divisions
between White House and Hartsville and a rumor that the
Church might sell the Hartsville sanctuary to raise revenue.
deacons also discussed declining Church revenues and the
differences among members of the Church. To address the
financial concerns, the deacons debated cutting costs at or
possibly closing Dayspring Academy. The minutes reflect that
Mr. Slagle declared that "We will not save both; it is
save the church or save the school." Another deacon
indicated that the Church's problems were
"spiritual, " and some of the deacons suggested
that the pastors, Robbie Kline in Hartsville and Roger Brewer
in White House, needed to get together.
same day as the deacons' meeting, Pastor Brewer
circulated a three-point statement of faith and requested
that it be signed to indicate assent to upholding the
Church's "doctrine." Some versions of the
statement of faith included the following sentence: "We
do not and will not accept or fellowship any other plan of
salvation or any other baptism formula." Deacons Ed and
Mickey Andrews signed a version of the statement of faith
that included the quoted sentence, but the remaining five
deacons did not. ...