By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist megachurch has made amends for disciplining a church member for leaving her husband after learning he is addicted to child pornography.
In a face-to-face meeting June 3, Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church, apologized personally to Karen Hinkley, according to an update to “covenant members” of the multi-site congregation with an average weekend attendance of 10,000. Hinkley was put under church discipline when she didn’t seek the counsel of church elders before getting her marriage annulled.
Hinkley, who served as a missionary in Asia before the mission organization SIM USA sent her and her former husband home after he admitted to a habit of viewing child pornography, accepted the apology in a statement published by the Wartburg Watch blog June 10.
Village Church elders forgave Jordan Root when he confessed his sin and agreed to a program of counseling. Surprised to learn that Karen Root got their marriage annulled — something allowed in Texas if the original wedding vow was not in good faith — they ruled her in violation of a church covenant she signed pledging to seek reconciliation before divorcing her spouse.
Reclaiming her maiden name, Hinkley advised church leaders she was resigning as a member of The Village Church. Church leaders refused to accept her resignation and put her under church discipline for spurning their attempt at pastoral care.
Chandler admitted in a sermon May 31 that mistakes were made in the church’s disciplinary process and offered a blanket apology to any member for “where we failed to recognize you as the victim and didn’t empathize deeply with your situation.”
In the private meeting with Hinkley and a couple of her friends, Chandler and ministry leadership pastor Josh Patterson said after further reflection, they realized that Hinkley had biblical grounds for divorce, her membership withdrawal should have been granted immediately, and she should never have been put under discipline.
The pastors added that they should have recognized they lacked expertise to properly counsel a pedophile and had referred him to a licensed sex offender treatment provider.
The episode prompted review of current practice and procedures involving church discipline. “There will be definite changes to our system based on these meetings, including a much more patient process before a member enters formal church discipline,” said the newest statement from elders.
Hinkley said she believed the pastors were sincere and that she forgave them.
“I know this is not the end of the story for many, but I believe it is the end of the story for me,” she said in her statement. “This has been a long and difficult road both for me and for those who have walked closely with me, and I still have quite a bit of healing left to do. I believe it is time for me to move on in peace, trusting God to finish the good work He has started at The Village Church. I believe God is using what happened to me to do something beautiful, in his time and in his way, and for that I am exceedingly thankful.”
The membership dispute attracted widespread media attention. It also raised questions about whether The Village Church’s use of church covenants is typical of more than 500 churches that are part of Acts 29, a Calvinist-inspired church-planting group that Chandler leads as president.
In an out-of-print 1990 book Baptist Church Covenants that is fetching upward of $60 a copy on Amazon.com, Baptist historian Charles Deweese defined a church covenant as “a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith.”
Deweese said Baptists worldwide have written and used “hundreds, and perhaps thousands” of church covenants since the 1600s. Along with believer’s baptism and church discipline, Deweese said, covenants helped safeguard an emphasis on “regenerate church membership,” a value poorly reflected in a day when millions of Baptist church members rarely darken the door of a local church.
Recovery of a regenerate church membership is a core concern of the Young, Restless Reformed new Calvinism sweeping across evangelical groups including parts of the Southern Baptist Convention. Calvinist leader Mark Dever lists “biblical church discipline” as one of the Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, a classic for young Calvinists now in its third edition.
Deweese, a moderate in the late 20th century inerrancy debate in the Southern Baptist Convention, says use of church covenants was widespread among early Baptists in America, but more common within the Particular or Regular Baptist strain holding to Calvinism than the Separate Baptist tradition that emphasized revivalism and a personal relationship with Christ.
Their use declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, Deweese says, perhaps in part ironically to widespread publication of an 1853 covenant by J. Newton Brown, editorial secretary of the American Baptist Publication Society. Though never officially adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, Brown’s covenant made its way into denominational life when it was included in the 1956 edition of the Baptist Hymnal, which sold more than 6.5 million copies.
Deweese theorizes that standardizing the Baptist church covenant relieved a congregation of taking the trouble of writing its own, and over time diminished its importance.
Other explanations include an extremely tight relationship between covenants and church discipline that developed on the American frontier, tarnishing their reputation as more punitive than redemptive.
As the SBC adopted more of a business model in the 20th century, a regenerate church membership took a backseat to numerical growth. As society grew more permissive, church members became less inclined to confront another Baptist’s sin.
Over time Brown’s covenant, published both with and without a pledge to “abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage,” seemed outdated for its failure to address more contemporary concerns like drugs, the sexual revolution and pornography.
Conservative Baptist theologian John Hammett says the growing influence of individualism, coupled with the idea of “soul competency” introduced by denominational statesman E.Y. Mullins, surely contributed to the decline of church discipline.
Some attempts at recovery of church discipline have gone clumsily at the point of refusal to release a disgruntled member from his or her covenant. The concept is that if a person joins a church by vote, a vote also is required for a member’s dismissal.
A 9 Marks article by Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Dever’s Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, describes “pre-emptive resignation” – when a person who is being disciplined by the church resigns before the disciplinary process is completed — as a “get out of jail free card.”
Leeman says Jesus’ words giving the local authority “to bind and loose” includes the ability to excommunicate.
“Excommunication … is one aspect of the authority that Christ gives to the local church for the sake of guarding Christ’s name and reputation on earth,” Leeman said. “It’s a way of saying that someone no longer belongs to the kingdom of Christ, but to the kingdom of Satan. Just as baptism functions as a church’s way of publicly affirming an individual’s profession of faith, so excommunication functions as the church’s way of publicly removing its corporate affirmation from an individual’s profession because that profession appears fraudulent.”
“The individual who attempts to preempt this process by resigning before the church enacts formal discipline is guilty of usurping the church’s apostolic authority to speak in this manner,” Leeman said. “In so doing, he compounds his guilt, like the criminal charged with ‘resisting arrest.’”
Blogger Todd Wilhelm described a six-month struggle to have his name removed from the membership roster of a 9 Marks church in South Africa at Thou Are the Man
Wartburg Watch, a watchdog blog, nicknamed the practice “Hotel California” discipline, a reference to the rock-and-roll classic by the Eagles that ends with the line, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”