A church discipline situation became public last week that had been going on at The Village Church (TVC). Matt Chandler is the pastor of this mega-church. He is also the one who took over the Acts29 network when Mark Driscoll resigned. As I read through the documents and various blog posts, I thought about how much pastoral wisdom is necessary to exercise church discipline and to make sure to push when necessary and lay off when necessary. I have sympathy for the wife who was betrayed in an awful manner by her one flesh partner. But I also have sympathy for the elders at Village Church who are trying to give a good account to the Lord for the sheep (Hebrews 13:17).
Here is the timeline I cam up with from the articles at this site. I went through and read everything I could find about the case.
A husband and wife, Jordan and Karen Root, were missionaries in Asia. They were supported by TVC and were members of TVC, but they were employed by Serving in Mission (SIM). In December the husband confessed to looking at child porn for several years. The couple was immediately taken off the mission field. SIM investigated the husband and reported back to TVC. Sometime in late January the wife filed for an annulment of her marriage without consulting the elders at TVC. This was a violation of her church membership vows. On February 11th Karen sent a letter to TVC requesting to be dropped from the membership rolls. TVC refused to do so because she had violated her membership vows. Then they put her under church discipline.
TVC and SIM removed Jordan from leadership. TVC removed all of his financial support while agreeing to support Karen until August 31st. Restricted him from certain areas at church. He must check in and be chaperoned by an approved member of TVC while at church. They alerted all the proper civil authorities. They also told all places where Jordan worked what he had done.
The church body was kept up to date throughout the process, though some of the earlier emails were vague as to the exact sin Jordan had committed. In an email on May 23rd the elders informed the congregation that Karen was under church discipline for filing for annulment without consulting the elders. This week a furor arose over Karen’s church discipline and yesterday Matt Chandler issued an apology letter and agreed to remove her from the membership rolls.
In a situation like this there are many unknown facts. Therefore clarity, especially for an outsider, is hard to come by. But based on the documents I read, which are surely not everything, here are some thoughts.
A Couple of Odd Things
Why were no charges pressed against the husband? In a May 23rd email Chandler says the FBI “investigation resulted in no charges being filed against Jordan.” I have never heard of someone using child porn for years and not going to prison. Maybe he looked at images as a missionary and thus he was outside U.S. Jurisdiction. Also why did Karen chose annulment and not divorce?
In Defense of Membership Vows
One complaint against TVC is that membership vows are unbiblical and create a situation that is ripe for abuse. Anytime someone makes a promise to someone else that promise can become a way for the powerful to abuse the weak. However, that does not make membership vows inherently wrong anymore than it makes marriage vows wrong. If a person joins any organization, much less covenants with other people, they expect to know what responsibilities they have and what obligations the organization has towards them. The church is the same way. What is required of me when I join a body? What obligations do the elders have towards me? This can be twisted and abused. Vows are only as good as the people making them. But members need to know what they are getting into. Too many people attend churches with no formal commitment to their local church. This is not healthy or biblical.
In Defense of Church Discipline
If there are membership vows then there will be consequences for breaking those vows. This is called church discipline. What is church discipline? It is the rebuking of a wayward member by another member of the body. This can be informal, as in one member telling another member they are out of line. It can be more formal, such as an elder rebuking a member. It can be an official and public rebuke to a member from the elders. Or it can be the removal of a member from the Lord’s Supper because they refuse to repent of a particularly grievous sin. Usually when we refer to church discipline we are talking about the final step of excommunicating/kicking someone out.
The proof for church discipline in the Scriptures is extensive. Here are the key New Testament verses.
I Corinthians 5:4-5
II Thessalonians 3:6-15
I Timothy 1:20
III John 1:10
There are numerous other passages that implicitly teach church discipline, such as Acts 20:28-31, I Timothy 6:3-5, II Timothy 2:14-18, and Hebrews 13:17.
We should debate the mechanics of church discipline and for what sins it should implemented. But church discipline is biblical. I have no sympathy for uneducated bloggers who think church discipline is a relic of the 16th century.
In Defense of an Appeal System
But what if the elders get it wrong? What if they discipline too harshly or show partiality? Where can a member turn? Here is where an appeal system can be a great blessing. In our denomination, if the elders of a church hand down church discipline the member disciplined can appeal that decision to the presbytery. They can also appeal to our council, which is one level up from presbytery. In my denomination there are two levels of appeal. I know the Methodists and Anglicans have a system of appeals as well. It is not perfect, but it does create checks and balances.
What are the advantages of an appeal system? First, it helps keep the elders in check. In church discipline cases the elders know that other pastors, elders, or bishops will be looking at the case and evaluating their actions. Therefore they will be more careful with what they do and say. Their decisions must stand up to outside scrutiny. Would the elders at TVC have made the same choices if they knew another court would be looking at the case? The second advantage is for the members. They know there is a higher court they can go to if the elders get abusive. They are not stuck with the decision of the elders. Finally, the local body benefits because people will not feel the need to go public, as Karen did. Appeal via internet may get a person what they want, but ultimately it is damaging. In Karen’s case, it was her only option because there was no court of appeals.
In Defense of the Wife
Reading the above, you might assume I am siding with the elders at TVC. However, that is not the case. I think they did a lot right. I am not sure I could have navigated the waters as well as they did. But as I read through TVC’s response
to Karen’s attempt to remove herself from membership I see a church that loves Karen, but doesn’t realize they have already lost her. I am not sure why that is the case. Maybe she could not handle being there anymore, is mad at the elders, is running or hiding, or needs peace and does not think she can find it at TVC. Who knows. But she was done.
I agree with Chandler that the best place to grow through a terrible situation like Karen’s is her local body (May 23rd email). But what if a person refuses to stay? What if trust or something else has eroded so that the elders do not have her heart? She sinned by dissolving her marriage without the counsel of the elders. She broke a promise, which is no small thing in Scripture (Matthew 5:37, James 5:12). However, I would not have put her under final church discipline. The only option isn’t kicking her out. An official rebuke for being hasty with the annulment and refusing to meet with elders would have been sufficient. Then I would have transferred her to another church. While that may not be technically correct, it is pastorally wise. Sometimes people need to be forced to stay. I do not think that was the case here. If she is leaving with sin, bitterness, and anger then the Lord will deal with that.
One last thought. From everything I read the husband has attended the church throughout. Maybe the session should have asked the husband to attend worship elsewhere. Would Karen have felt more secure if her husband was not there? He could have worshiped somewhere else for a while to give Karen time to heal without his presence.
Cases like these are hard. There are no easy answers for a man addicted to child porn, a wife betrayed by that addiction, and a church trying to shepherd both through sin and grief. The fact that they were missionaries supported by the church and well known by the members adds a level of difficulty. The final outcome appears to be the right one. But I believe, with a little wisdom, the destination could have been reached with less collateral damage.