For the leaders of Watermark Community Church, church discipline is simply loving like Jesus.
But for many people, the notion of churchgoers publicly denouncing one another’s sins raises fearful images of The Scarlet Letter and Pilgrims in stocks.
An appeals court in Dallas is now being asked to decide where the right of Watermark – or any church – to confront sin ends and an individual’s right to privacy begins.
Can a church pursue someone who isn’t even a member?
Watermark, a fast-growing nondenominational church in northeast Dallas, says the case involves accusations of adultery, a wife who wanted to save her marriage, a husband who sat on a board of a national Christian organization, and another woman who works for another church.
The man and woman accused by the wife and by Watermark of having an affair – identified in court documents only as “John Doe” and “Jane Roe” – say the church is distorting what happened and has invaded their privacy. (Both declined to be interviewed.)
They filed suit against the church in April to stop the discipline process.
These days, congregations may call it church discipline, “care and correction” or a “restoration ministry.” Discipline is mostly private and informal, one friend talking to another. Less often, church officials get involved.
What makes the Watermark case fairly unusual is the lawsuit.
Jeff Tillotson, attorney for the man and the woman, said the case has nothing to do with the church’s view of biblical teachings. “It has to do with actions the church wants to take against its former members and third-party citizens who never belonged to this church in the first place.”
Church officials say their responsibility is clear. As Watermark’s senior pastor, the Rev. Todd Wagner, told his congregation last month: “Sue me. Nail me to a tree. Tell me you hate me. Misrepresent my motives. We’re going to love you anyway.”
Guided by Gospel
Anger, gluttony, sex, inattention to others’ needs – the list of possible sins some Christians say demand congregational attention is long.
The idea that Christians have a sacred obligation to keep tabs on one another has been part of the faith since the beginning. It was as common as singing hymns in most churches in early America. After almost vanishing in the mid-20th century, discipline has made a comeback in many conservative Protestant churches.
About 1,500 worshippers fill the auditorium at Lake Highlands High School every week for each of Watermark’s two Sunday services. Worship begins with Christian rock. Sneakers, T-shirts and open-toed sandals are OK.
But while the style is informal, doctrine is anything but.
People who join Watermark literally sign on the dotted line, agreeing to “submit themselves to the care and correction of the Board of Elders.”
And that’s where the story of John Doe and Jane Roe vs. Watermark Community Church started.
According to church officials, Mr. Doe and his wife joined Watermark more than a year ago. Both signed the papers agreeing to church accountability.
Soon, the wife went to Watermark leaders, saying she had evidence that her husband was cheating on her, church officials said. Her plea for help set off what Watermark calls a “Matthew 18” process, referring to a passage in the Gospel:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. … If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you. … If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”
The wife confronted her husband – by herself and with friends – and he confessed, church leaders said. But early this year, the wife, who also declined to be interviewed, discovered that Mr. Doe was continuing his affair with Ms. Roe, and she filed for divorce, church leaders said.
At a regular evening church meeting, the wife Doe asked for a public prayer, which Mr. Wagner offered. Identifying the wife by name, he prayed that she and her husband would reconcile. While he discussed some difficulties in the marriage, Mr. Wagner said, he did not specifically mention infidelity.
Watermark officials asked the wife to make one more try at reconciliation, one last meeting with close Christian friends who might be able to work with her husband. She supplied the names of 14 people, half of whom were not Watermark members. The church sent a letter to the 14 describing the situation and inviting them to a meeting, but Mr. Doe refused to attend, church leaders said.
Then the church sent a letter to Mr. Doe telling him that it planned to contact the woman who was allegedly his paramour – and who is not a Watermark member. The letter also said the church would write to the 14 people invited to the meeting, letting them know about his unwillingness to cooperate, and to the national Christian organization where he was a board member. (Mr. Doe has resigned from that board, Mr. Wagner said, and the church no longer intends to contact the organization.)
There was never a plan to inform the entire congregation about the affair, the pastor said.
Mr. Wagner and two other Watermark leaders called Ms. Roe and suggested that she tell her boss, the pastor of another Dallas-area church, about her relationship with Mr. Doe. If she didn’t, they said, they would call the pastor, “even as we would want and expect others to contact us if one of our employees or members was engaging in activities damaging to the reputation of Christ,” according to a prepared statement from the church.
Mr. Wagner said this week that he believed he was obligated to contact the woman’s boss even though she never signed up for Watermark’s discipline, because all Christians are obligated to one another.
“If a sister sins, she is a sister in Christ,” he said. “We are commanded to love our neighbor.”
Mr. Doe sued in late April to block the church from sending out the follow-up letter and from contacting Ms. Roe’s employer.
In court papers, he gives a different version of the story:
According to the lawsuit, Mr. Doe revealed his personal problems directly to Mr. Wagner, believing the information would be confidential. Mr. Doe believed that Watermark encouraged open discussion of problems without fear that the secrets would be revealed, said Mr. Tillotson, the lawyer.
After the discipline process started, Mr. Doe decided to quit the church, Mr. Tillotson said. But church elders told Mr. Doe that he couldn’t leave and that they would continue their efforts to make his “sin” known – to the congregation, his friends outside the church, his employer, Ms. Roe’s employer and possibly even the public at large.
Battle moves to court
When Mr. Doe filed suit on behalf of himself and Ms. Roe, he got a temporary restraining order blocking the church from acting further.
But on May 5, state Associate Judge Sheryl McFarlin lifted that order, agreeing with Watermark’s assertion that it violated the church’s constitutional right to freely exercise its religion.
Mr. Doe has appealed. No hearing date has been set.
Although Watermark is legally free to send out its letters and contact Ms. Roe’s boss, it will hold off until the appeal is decided, Mr. Wagner said.
Kelly Shackelford, the lawyer for Watermark, wants the lawsuit dismissed. Allowing it go forward, he said, would force judges to decide whether Watermark’s elders are correctly applying the Bible. That, he said, is inappropriate.
“What happens next?” said Mr. Shackelford, chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano. “[Do] we need to get churches involved in politics to ensure that we have judges in office that support their theological views?”
But Steven K. Green, former general counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the appeals court should hear the case. Otherwise, he argued, the church’s religious views trump the right of a member to change his religious views and leave.
“Once he withdraws, it seems that the church’s interest is over,” he said.
Church discipline cases raise important constitutional issues:
• The First Amendment protects a church’s right to exercise its religion but also protects an individual’s right not to have another’s religious beliefs imposed on him.
• Americans have a right to have conflicts heard before a judge, but such cases entangle the court in religion.
In cases involving both of those dilemmas, the courts have usually ruled in favor of the churches, say experts in church-state law.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled directly on church discipline involving lay members. Federal and state courts, however, have often ruled that civil courts can’t interfere with religious controversies – regardless of the harm to individuals. Safeguarding religious freedom, judges have said, is worth some damage to an individual.
The courts can intervene only if they find an important nonreligious reason, like a threat to health or public safety.
But the legal record is more mixed when discipline is aimed at nonmembers or those who have quit, church-state experts said. And at least two lawsuits demonstrate that courts can find reasons to intervene in church discipline disputes.
In 1989, an Oklahoma court ruled that a church could no longer publicize a woman’s alleged sexual immorality after she quit. The decision prodded many churches to develop extensive education for members about the discipline process, including the kinds of forms that Watermark members sign.
And in 2004, an appeals court in Fort Worth denied claims against a church but agreed with a woman who said the license that her pastor holds as a professional counselor prevented him from publicizing her behavior – even though she attended group sessions with other church members. An appeal is expected to be heard by the Texas Supreme Court this fall.
Even churches that advocate the discipline process can struggle with how to do it. Last year, the magazine Christianity Today highlighted the issue. The headline on the cover: “Fixing church discipline: Tough love without the legalism.”
Not every theologian reads Matthew 18 as a procedural formula, said Robin Lovin, a professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University.
“Methodist pastors would interpret that as advice to keep working on relationships. It’s about not giving up on somebody,” he said. “It shouldn’t be turned into a legal process.”
The Catholic Church, by far the largest Christian denomination in the United States, has no formal method for lay members to discipline one another with or without church leadership involvement, said the Rev. Thomas Green, a canon law professor at Catholic University in Washington.
But it’s easy to find other churches that have adopted some form of church discipline over the past 20 years. And when discipline goes beyond face-to-face discussions, it’s usually about sexual issues, said Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and an elder at Trinity Fellowship Church in Richardson.
“Issues of marital fidelity have become a litmus test for general fidelity. And it some ways, they’re the easiest to quantify,” he said.
Several years ago, he said, his church had to deal with a man he called a “serial adulterer.” When his church discovered the man had joined another congregation, Dr. Bock’s church notified the leadership of the other church, he said.
Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton has also used public church discipline. A worship leader whose husband discovered she was having an affair was confronted by her pastor more than a year ago. Unlike the Watermark example, the woman repented, reconciled and eventually went on a local Christian radio show with her husband to discuss the experience.
Bent Tree has had four other successful reconciliations of married couples that had been split by adultery, said the executive pastor, the Rev. Tim Harkins.
“Those are the home runs. That is what we are pursuing,” he said.
That’s the kind of reaction that Watermark hoped for with Mr. Doe, Mr. Wagner said.
“Most folks respond really well and are grateful,” he said.
Churches and courts
Some key court decisions on church discipline:
Bear vs. Reformed Mennonite Church
(Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1975)
Summary: A church member was excommunicated for criticizing the bishop’s teachings. Other members, including the man’s wife and children, were ordered to shun him. He argued that his business and family were destroyed.
Outcome: The court supported the man, saying that despite the church’s First Amendment rights, its conduct interfered with superior concerns, such as the preservation of marriage.
Paul vs. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society
(9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, San Francisco, 1987)
Summary: A Jehovah’s Witness in Washington withdrew from the church because she felt her parents had been unjustly excommunicated. The denomination said members who quit should be treated just like those who are excommunicated. When the member visited her hometown, friends in the church shunned her.
Outcome: The court said she had no standing because shunning is part of the faith and protected by the Constitution.
Guinn vs. Church of Christ of Collinsville
(Oklahoma Supreme Court, 1989)
Summary: Elders publicly confronted a church member with a rumor that she was fornicating with a man and asked her to repent. When she refused and tried to quit, the elders told the congregation to call her and urge her to repent. They asked other Church of Christ parishes to do the same.
Outcome: The woman was awarded monetary damages. The court said she withdrew her consent to be disciplined when she quit the church.
Williams vs. Gleason
(14th District Texas Court of Appeals, Houston, 2000)
Summary: Elders at a Presbyterian church disputed a Sunday school teacher’s lessons. The teacher filed a complaint against the elders. They in turn accused him of lying and disciplined him. A deacon’s wife called another Presbyterian church where the teacher preached and questioned his qualifications.
Outcome: The court said it was constitutionally prohibited from ruling on an ecclesiastical dispute over church discipline.
Bryce vs. Episcopal Church
(10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Denver, 2002)
Summary: A Colorado Episcopal church sent letters and held meetings with members after learning that its youth minister had entered into a same-sex civil commitment with a minister in a non-Episcopal church. The letters said homosexuals are promiscuous and get terrible diseases. The youth minister and her partner said members made offensive remarks at the church meetings.
Outcome: The court said the two women had no standing to sue. Though the partner wasn’t a member, the church still had a right to discuss their religious beliefs.
Penley vs. Westbrook
(2nd District Texas Court of Appeals, Fort Worth, 2004)
Summary: A woman and her husband attended a group marriage discussion hosted by their Bible church pastor, a licensed professional counselor. The woman divorced her husband and quit the church. The pastor sent a letter to the congregation, saying she had an inappropriate relationship with another man.
Outcome: The court said the pastor’s First Amendment rights might not apply because of his role as a licensed counselor. He has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
By the Book
Churches that call for formal discipline of members rely on several New Testament passages:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?”
1 Corinthians 5:1-2
(New International Version)
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