Want to watch some reporters wade into really deep church-state waters and, as far as I can tell, keep their facts straight? Then click here and head over to the Dallas Morning News to read a news feature by reporters Jeffrey Weiss and Michael Grabell entitled "Church, ex-member battle over discipline."
This is one tough story, with multiple and clashing viewpoints about very emotional events and, to make matters worse, a conflict between the religious liberty of a voluntary association (that would be the church) and the privacy rights of several individuals (including one who had joined, and then quit, the congregation). What happens when someone threatens to pull this kind of conflict into a secular court?
Everything begins with Watermark Community Church, a growing, independent Protestant flock that is trying to take church discipline seriously -- especially when it comes time to heal marriages and keep families together. Here's a bit of what is going on:
An appeals court in Dallas is now being asked to decide where the right of Watermark -- or any church -- to confront sin ends and an individual's right to privacy begins.
Can a church pursue someone who isn't even a member?
Watermark, a fast-growing nondenominational church in northeast Dallas, says the case involves accusations of adultery, a wife who wanted to save her marriage, a husband who sat on a board of a national Christian organization, and another woman who works for another church.
The man and woman accused by the wife and by Watermark of having an affair -- identified in court documents only as "John Doe" and "Jane Roe" -- say the church is distorting what happened and has invaded their privacy. (Both declined to be interviewed.)
It's crucial that Weiss and Grabell note that courts try to avoid doctrinal conflicts of this kind unless a church is engaging in activities that lead to physical danger, fraud or profit.
The story also stresses that the man at the heart of these events -- the anonymous Mr. Doe -- signed papers saying he would submit to the discipline of church leaders when he joined the church. Then, when the church chided him about an alleged affair, he left the congregation. But his former wife was still a member and the church's leaders hoped the marriage could be healed.
One more detail is critical: Many churches have created explicit forms that allow clergy to offer this kind of guidance in the lives of members. This directly links the rights of the church to the concept of "freedom of association," which allows religious groups to maintain their doctrinal unity.
I also like how Weiss and Grabell do not attempt to label the churches involved in this case. Mr. Doe does not flee a "fundamentalist" church in order to join a "moderate evangelical" church or some other strange combination of vague terms. Instead, the reporters simply describe some of the details of the case in clear language. Here's an example:
According to church officials, Mr. Doe and his wife joined Watermark more than a year ago. Both signed the papers agreeing to church accountability. Soon, the wife went to Watermark leaders, saying she had evidence that her husband was cheating on her, church officials said. Her plea for help set off what Watermark calls a "Matthew 18" process, referring to a passage in the Gospel:
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. ... If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you. ... If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church."
This is a sad, but important story. Check it out. It's important for newspapers to wrestle with these kinds of church issues, rather than simply burying them under legal jargon.
A court may have to settle this case. But it is also clear that the church leaders were trying to help church members take their vows seriously -- their vows to each other and their vows to the congregation that they had elected to join.