Essentially, a member, identified in the court as John Doe, was unfaithful to his wife, identified as Jane Doe. Jane went to the pastor to seek support. Whatever the pastor may or may not have said to the wife, he then proceeded with discipline, following Matthew 18:
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. (Matthew 18: 15-17, NRSV)
Following that logic, the pastor saw the couple together. According to reports, the pastor informed church elders. John Doe apparently refused to repent, at least as this church recognized repentance. Therefore, the pastor prepared to send letters to persons both inside and outside the congregation. John Doe stated he had left the church, but the church’s bylaws reportedly stated that he could not leave the church simply to refuse correction. The Mr. Doe then sought a court injunction. According to Watermark's statement, that injunction was challenged and removed. The Mr. Doe and Ms. Roe, apparently the other woman involved, appealed.
For me, as a person in a sacramental church, this raises all sorts of questions, some of which are clearly not understood by the media. For one thing, I can’t fault a pastor for violating the seal of the confessional if the pastor and his congregation don’t accept sacramental confession. I can and do fault him for violating a professional confidence; but if the bylaws do call for acceptance of the system of confrontation in Matthew 18, and if the Does were aware of those bylaws, I don’t know that I could hold him to account. That is, I think this was an inappropriate set up to begin with, but there was a declared set of rules and it appears the pastor followed them.
I think we can question, too, what it means to confront with two or three witnesses. Somehow, sending a note to the elders of the congregation doesn’t seem quite the same. If the elders actually met with the Does, perhaps; but that isn’t reported. And, whence this decision to give this information to persons outside the church? Even if the congregation was committed to the model in Matthew 18, this seems to exceed it.
There is reference in news reports that this was done out of love in an effort to save the marriage. But in what way is Mrs. Doe served by this? After all, she may well experience public humiliation by the revelation. Then, too, isn’t this her story to tell? If she shared the information with the elders, that would be one thing; it is against her that Mr. Doe sinned. But it appears the pastor took the initiative.
How, too, should we understand this concept that one can’t leave a church “to avoid correction?” How would this be enforced? Would they garnish wages to maintain a pledge?
Well, as I said, it’s an interesting case. It would certainly be different in an Episcopal church. There would be grounds for a presentment against the minister for conduct unbecoming and violation of confidence, even if not for violation of the confessional. It’s not that we would deny the process in Matthew 18; but we would certainly follow through differently, making it the responsibility of the person injured with support from the church, rather than a responsibility of the church itself. And, of course, if one or both chose to leave, we would have no desire, much less procedure, to prevent it.
But there are two things here that trouble me. The first is the interpretation of Matthew 18 by the Dallas church. The implication of “let that one be to you as a Gentile or a tax-collector” certainly implies separation, if not outright shunning. However, when we look at how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax-collectors we have a very different result. The incarnate Jesus, reflecting his religion and his culture, might have initially thought of separation. By the end of his ministry, however, he had taken in tax-collectors and had reached out to Gentiles as among those who would enter into the Kingdom “before you [pious Pharisees].” And the resurrected Christ told Peter that he had made all things, including Gentiles, clean, and called Paul specifically to bring the Gentiles in. So, if we are called to treat someone as a Gentile and a tax-collector, aren’t we called to incorporate the person rather than to exclude? This doesn’t imply comfort with the sin, but instead confidence in our salvation in Christ.
And the other thing that bothers me? The note in at least one report that there’s another, earlier similar case of violation of confidence on its way to the Texas Supreme Court.