Monday, May 29, 2006

Pastoral Confidence in Texas

There’s a fascinating article in today’s news regarding Watermark Community Church, a nondenominational, evangelical church in Dallas and issues of confidence in the conversations between a member and the pastor. You can find news reports on it here and here. Watermark's official statement is here.

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.


Anonymous said...

But there never was a one- on-one vow of confidence made. In addition, Mrs. Doe is involved in the congregation and feels very loved in the process. What is sad is that most churches would sweep this under the rug and not deal with it, just let them move to another church, and in effect, say that it is ok to just leave it alone.

Marshall said...

Noted. And there is certainly a history in the Christian tradition of requiring confession to be a public event before the congregation, with shunning for those who do not. Moreover, I acknowledge that there was no sense that rules were violated: this was a practice of the congregation that Mr. Doe should have known about. And, I have posted a link to the public statement of the Church in my post.

That said, I maintain my opinion that, while this is based on one saying of Jesus, it does not accurately reflect the fullness of the Gospel. I have made my statement regarding "Gentiles and tax-collectors." I would also suggest this is contrary to "forgiving seventy times seven," or "forgiving as [we] have been forgiven." Now, whether Mrs. Doe is prepared to forgive, not as inducement to change, but for its own sake, and for her own sake, is one issue. Whether the pastor, on behalf of the congregation, is called to forgive, or to model forgiveness, or at least forbearance, is another.

Moreover, that still doesn't address any contact with persons outside the congregation. Must confidence be requested for each individual member for members of the congregation to expect professional discretion on the part of the cleric? How does the pastor understand "professional confidence?" In my own understanding there are certainly degrees, and there are confidences that are not protected under "the seal of the confessional," which for me is indeed absolute. That doesn't give leave within professional practice to spread those confidences beyond what was necessary within the confines of the community.

Thus, there may be no legal recourse for Mr. Doe and Ms. Roe. I still believe there are issues of grace, forgiveness, and professional practice at stake.

Fluffy Halifax said...

There are a number of problems with Watermark's behavior.

First of all, they claimed that they had control over Mr. Doe because he signed a covenant. This covenant isn't worth the paper it's printed on as it can't be construed a contract. Moreover, in the USA, at least up until now, you could resign a voluntary assocation.

Second, as part of Watermark's process, the church sent a letter to 14 people explaining the situation, seven of whom were not members of Watermark, at the behest of Mrs. Doe. Mr. Doe refused to take part in this reconciliation.

Third, Watermark thought that since Mr. Doe's partner in adultery, Ms. Roe, worked for another ministry (but was not a member of Watermark), that they (Watermark) ought to tell her employer about her behavior. The intention was, of course, to get her into trouble. It was not to engage in "Christian correction."

What Watermark fails to understand is that while they may believe that Matthew 18 requires them to do this, they're running smack dab up against the tort of invasion of privacy. It can be as true as the sun coming up in the east every morning, but if it's not a known fact, and if a third party spreads it, and it has a deleterious impact, then there will be problems. While Mr. Doe might have a tough time proving a case, Ms. Roe would have a rather easier time, since she was not a member of the congregation.

Frankly I find the behavior despicable. It goes far beyond Matthew 18 in my opinion and more into Scarlet Letter territory. It always seems it's the sexual sins that bring down these sorts of things. Apparently nothing else is a sin?

This is the kind of garbage that ensures I'll never willingly darken the door of a church for the rest of my life.

Marshall said...

Halifax (with all due respect, I can't feel I'm taking your comment seriously and then call you "Fluffy"):

I agree that this is beyond Matthew 18; and, regardless of tort law for the moment, I think it's beyond Christian in that it focuses on enforcement and not on grace. Their point, that this should not be ignored, is valid, at least within their particular community and with the consent and under the control of Mrs. Doe, arguably the injured party. As to whether this would help maintain the married couple, I think it would only do so to the extent that both parties agreed to the standard; and that's clearly not the case here. And if it doesn't maintain the couple? Well, there's always, "Do not be yoked to an unbeliever...."

All that said, please to not tar all Christians with this brush. There are many of us who feel this is indeed un-Christian, in being un-Christlike.