After The Village Church (TVC) publicly shamed Karen Hinkley for pursuing a marriage annulment by publicly disclosing details of her personal life to their entire congregation, some said she should lawyer up and take TVC to court for slander or defamation. Others say she should have seen it coming.
When Karen and her husband, Jordan, joined The Village Church (TVC) outside of Dallas, Texas a few years earlier, they willingly signed a five-page membership contract. By doing so, the couple agreed to submit to the authority of the church leaders and receive any discipline administered upon her by them if she sinned in their eyes. They also agreed to “walk through the steps marriage reconciliation at The Village Church before pursuing divorce.” When Karen decided not to sidestep TVC’s process and file for annulment, she could assume that it might trigger unspecified disciplinary actions.
TVC leaders deemed her behavior worthy of discipline and sent multiple emails divulging the painful details of her difficult decision. Did they cross a legal line? Maybe, but likely not.
Eugene Volokh is a professor of law at UCLA Law School specializing in religious freedom and church-state relations law who pens “The Volokh Conspiracy” blog at The Washington Post. He says that the law protects congregants from discipline by religious institutions when the case involves battery, such as the forced shaving of splinter members by a Amish group or the beating up of a recalcitrant husband by a Rabbi. But religious groups are free under the law to expel people or even shun them by urging other members to disassociate from them.
And what about sharing personal information with a large group of people? Volokh says that in cases of such disclosure, the question becomes consent. If people have joined the group as adults and have signed documents agreeing to these kinds of disclosures, the institution may be protected. But institutions should be careful not to disclose false information, which Volokh says might lead to a successful lawsuit.
In general, though, American law protects religious institutions in matters related to discipline of memberships.
“The value of religious institutions, some say, is precisely that the institution can create a community with its own sets of rules and disciplines. That’s seen by many as potentially valuable,” Volokh says. “So generally speaking, the law’s reaction to any social, emotional, reputational mistreatment of a person by members of his own religious community is: ‘Don’t call on the law to remedy your problems. If you don’t like the group’s rules, leave.’”
In one sense, the law’s approach seems sensible. When you join any community, you will always receive both bitter and sweet. It is incumbent upon potential members to do their due diligence in this regard. That’s why I would never attend a church with a reputation for authoritarian and abusive behavior and I would never sign a multi-page membership contract that might open a door to leaders disclosing private details of my life to others.
Of course, conversations about the legal implications of church discipline do not resolve how Christians should respond to cases like Karen Hinkley’s. This seems to be a case where someone who is clearly a victim in a terrible situation was further traumatized by her own church. While we might wish this incident was isolated, that appears to not be so.
In Hinkley’s case, the ensuing fiasco brought about a confession and apology from TVC’s pastor, Matt Chandler, regarding their discipline procedures: “It is clear that we have not communicated—in multiple cases now—the gentleness, compassion, and patience that our elders are called to walk in.” In a sermon on forgiveness this past Sunday, Chandler went even further, asking his congregation for forgiveness for instances where leaders overstepped their authority. The question for TVC now is whether and how this confession will lead to changes in policies.
TVC is but one example that leads me to believe that church discipline proponents may need to engage in more rigorous self-critique. Their houses are not fully in order. Jesus taught that one can judge the goodness of a tree by the fruit it produces. There are too many instances where many current church discipline practices lead to abuse, oppression, and pain rather than love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Of course, many of church discipline proponents would respond that they are just following the Bible’s teachings. But such a response reminds me of Augustine who taught that one can tell if a Bible interpretation is sound by looking to see if it leads to greater love for God and others. If an interpretation is not leading those who hold it to love others more, then perhaps the interpretation itself needs adjusting. If you encounter someone who is unwilling to hear critiques of their interpretations of the Bible, you should fear this person. Someone who believes they are as infallible as God is not to be trusted.
I believe that there is a place for church discipline in modern Christendom, but I am sure that I do not understand that phrase in the same way that most do. The kind of discipline I find in the Bible is sacrificial, loving, graceful, merciful, and relational. It closely resembles its root word–“discipleship”–and does not conform to manmade power structures.
While I have not fully figured out how church discipline should be conducted, of this I am sure: Church leaders are to be shepherds of grace and love who lay down their lives for their flocks. [tweetable]When shepherds become shunners and shamers instead of servants, they are no longer walking the way of Jesus.[/tweetable]