Several readers have asked me to comment on the recent situation involving The Village Church in Dallas and how it has placed Karen Hinkley under church discipline.
Karen’s husband, Jordan Root, admitted to viewing child pornography over ten years, most recently as a missionary with SIM. Karen took steps to annul her marriage to Jordan and also publicized Jordan’s sin out of concern for possible child victims after their sending church, The Village Church, refrained from explaining the allegations to members. Karen terminated her membership and the church elders placed her under church discipline for failing to follow the church bylaws.
Normally I wouldn’t write about a specific church or situation, but this incident has gained so much attention—and I’ve seen so much chatter on Facebook threads with dissenting opinions—that it seemed like a public matter at this point with lessons applicable for all of us.
Full disclosure: as a Dallas Seminary student, I was classmates with Jordan Root and friends with Richard and Erin Brindley. I write as a Christian first, in hope that this situation will turn out for some good.
1.) Manmade rules – Large churches operate with layers of manmade laws called bylaws. This may seem necessary for churches which are larger than, say, a village, but it can make dealing with difficult situations like this clunky, complex, and sometimes unbiblical. I read through The Village Church (hereafter TVC) bylaws—all 22 pages—and they seemed similar to those of other organizations I’ve worked for, whether schools, businesses, or Christian nonprofits. Bylaws help organizations run effectively. The trouble comes when the leaders of a church confuse bylaws with scripture. By taking manmade rules—no matter how practical or seemingly wise—and elevating them to the place of scripture, churches are in danger of committing spiritual abuse. TVC, to its credit, in ARTICLE IX 9.1, says that, “Though the various theological statements of the Church reflect succinct summaries of biblical boundaries, it is the Bible itself to which we are in ultimate submission.” In this case I believe TVC has acted unbiblically. See point 2.
2.) Misuse of Church Discipline – The Bible says that church discipline should only be enacted against an unrepentant sinner who is in egregious sin (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5.) The goal is always restoration. In this case, TVC has placed Karen Hinkley under what they describe as “church discipline” because they say she has failed to follow the church bylaws. This is an abuse of church discipline, since Karen has not sinned. For what it’s worth, the TVC bylaws themselves (ARTICLE XIII) say that church discipline can only be enacted against someone who has sinned. I sincerely hope that the elders at TVC will follow scripture first and not just their bylaws in this situation.
3.) Covenant Membership – TVC requires members to sign a covenant in which they agree to submit to the elders in the interpretation of the Bible and in a number of other areas. There are two types of covenants: unilateral and bilateral. Unilateral covenants are one-way. Only one person’s behavior impacts the covenant stipulations. God made a unilateral covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, where it was God’s faithfulness alone that guaranteed the covenant stipulations. In bilateral covenants, the covenant is conditioned on the behavior of both parties. It sounds like TVC is treating Karen’s signing of the Covenant Membership document as a unilateral covenant which Karen must abide by no matter what. I disagree. I would consider it a bilateral covenant in which the church elders must act truthfully and in a trustworthy manner as the Bible requires. If the elders act in a manner apart from God’s truth, or in a way that seems untrustworthy to a member, that member has the right and obligation to consider the covenant voided. TVC states that its elders are held at least to the standard of New Testament elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which require biblical truth and trustworthiness. Karen Hinkley decided that the men she interacted with were not acting in a trustworthy manner in regard to her well-being and the well-being of potential child victims of Jordan. Her termination of “covenant” membership thus seems perfectly legitimate.
4.) Human Depravity and God’s Grace – I am concerned with how TVC views Jordan Root and also by what that says about the elders’ understanding of human depravity and God’s grace. TVC has taken certain measures to monitor Jordan in light of his addiction to child pornography. Jordan confessed to viewing child porn and to being stimulated by the thought of pre-pubescent girls for the last ten years. Karen says that he has admitted only to things in which he has been caught. She says that Jordan put himself in many situations where he could be alone with children over the last ten years. To warn potential victims, she wanted to publicize Jordan’s sin just as SIM did to the Root supporters. TVC took a different approach and tried to protect Jordan’s reputation while quietly taking measures to limit his contact with children. They have said that Jordan is walking in repentance and is getting counseling. That is good, but anyone who has dealt with pedophiles understands the potential depth, deceit, and damage a pedophile can cause over ten years. It seems simplistic to claim that Jordan has repented of his sin and is on the fast track to recovery. TVC should recognize that Jordan may have committed crimes or sins to which he has not admitted, and should exercise an abundance of caution to protect and notify children and parents. God’s grace covers repented sin, but it does not blind our eyes to human depravity and to the cunning of sinners who have lived a lifestyle of deceit. Anything less is cheap grace.
5.) Where are the Women Leaders? In the documentation about this situation, all of the leaders interacting with Karen from TVC were men. I understand that many churches believe that church elders must be males, but in a church the size of a village there must be some women leaders—call them pastors, directors, whatever—who can interact with a missionary wife whose husband has been caught in child pornography. TVC—and every church—would be wise to empower women leaders and ensure that women who are victimized can interact with other women and not just men.
I believe that Karen Hinkley is a courageous woman who has stood up to protect herself and potential child victims. I believe that The Village Church has unfortunately mishandled this situation and—despite the sincerity of its leaders—in some respects has acted unbiblically by abusing church discipline and revictimizing a victim while taking a simplistic approach to a pedophile. It is my sincere hope that TVC will recognize its error of exalting its bylaws to the place of scripture and will publicly apologize while taking steps to ensure that this never happens again.
Update, 6/11/15: Yesterday, The Wartburg Watch posted an apology from Matt Chandler and the Village Church elders to Karen Hinkley, and a statement of forgiveness from Karen Hinkley. I am so thankful to see how God has worked to bring healing and reconciliation in this matter, and how the TVC elders have humbled themselves and admitted their mistakes, sin, and mistreatment of Karen. Such an apology–and such forgiveness–is so rare in these days of image control, celebrity pastors, and mega churches. It is a beautiful thing to see reconciliation in the body of Christ. This is news that makes me smile.