Sinsational reporting

churchdisciplineLast week, the Drudge Report linked to some stories about a Florida woman who said that her former church had threatened to 'go public with her sins' by telling the congregation about her sexual relationship with a man who is not her husband. Here's the WJXT report:

Rebecca Hancock said harassment from Grace Community Church in Mandarin over her sex life caused her to leave, but she said that didn't put an end to the problem. She said she received a letter from the church's elders telling her the church plans to make her personal life very public.

"I'm basically run out. I'm the church harlot," Hancock said.

The 49-year-old said she has been dating a man for a while and she said members of the congregation at Grace Community Church haven't been happy about the relationship.

"Because I have a boyfriend that I'm involved with . . . to not be married to that person is a sin," Hancock said.

She said the issue caused her to leave the church. However, she said the church has not let go of her.

The letter Hancock received from the church states that because she has refused to end her sexual relationship with her boyfriend, "you leave us with no other choice but to carry out the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ" . . . "In accordance with Matthew 18:17 we intend to 'tell it to the church.'"

"On January 4, my sins will be told to the church, publicly, with my children sitting in the church and my friends," Hancock said.

The pastor of Grace Community Church, Dr. T. Scott Christmas, told Channel 4 he had no comment.

Pastors with whom Channel 4 spoke on Monday said announcing a sin to a congregation is not abnormal. They said it's written in the Bible to punish sinners who continue to sin.

The difference in Hancock's case is that she has left the church, and the pastors said that's is usually where punishment ends.

When I first read this report, I was aghast -- at the church. I couldn't believe any church could be so awful as described by WJXT or any of the other news outlets covering this story. Upon reflection, I realized I'd been tricked by bad reporting.

There are so many problems with the coverage that it's hard to get it all down. Note the last line of the first paragraph above. It's not that the church is going to go "public" with her sin, they're going "very public." There's really no need to overly dramatize the situation, particularly when the woman in question has taken her situation to the national media -- and not the congregation.

But more importantly the media's breathless accounts of church discipline are more or less devoid of any understanding of church discipline. I am a member of a church body that practices church discipline. It doesn't happen often but it happens. It's a long established practice. How long-established? Let's just say it goes back some 2,000 years. In a day and age where the true scandal is to declare something sinful, it may not make much sense to the mainstream media, but that's no excuse for slanted coverage.

The best thing a reader seeking information about the story can do is to read the letter (PDF) that the church sent the woman in question. It bears repeating that this letter was provided to the media by the recipient. Please note that FOX News titled the document "Church_Extortion.pdf." Subtle.

The letter shows that the church in question handles discipline somewhat differently than we Lutherans do, but not in any way resembling the language used by mainstream media. Here's the beginning:

We find great difficulty in writing this letter to you. The relationship that God has permitted us to experience together spans the distance between deep joys and intense trials. But, this present situation really tests the quality of our love. Above all else, our desire is that you will sense the love that motivates this letter. Our love for you compels us to pursue that which is best for you.

It has been brought to the attention of the elders and confirmed by you that you are involved in a sexually immoral relationship with a man who is not your husband. God gave sex as a gift to be enjoyed only by a man and a woman within a marriage relationship. The Bible states clearly that a follwer of Jesus Christ is not to participate in any type of sexually immoral relationship (Ephesians 5:3-7), equating it with idolatory (Colossians 3:5-7) and describing it as a sin against God, your body, and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:9-20). Participating in such behavior is a sin, which directly violates the expressed will of God (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

The Florida Times-Union began its story, accompanied by a photo of the woman in front of the church building, as follows:

Grace Community Church in Mandarin plans to tell it on the mountain - or at least preach it from the pulpit - on Sunday, Jan. 4. And it's not something former church member Rebecca Hancock wants her children or anyone else to hear.

The story goes on to provide some balance, but it also says that her children are 18 and 20 years old. Unless her adult children don't know how to read the paper or otherwise use The Google, that lede is misleading at best. I've known people who went to great lengths to avoid discipline from parents, elders, employers, the police, etc. and I understand that. But if we're going to take her at her word that she is motivated by a desire to keep her children from knowing that she's in a sexual relationship with someone who is not her spouse, can we at least get a reporter to explain why she took the story to the media?

orig_respectableAt least the previous story disclosed the children's ages. This FOX News abomination deliberately obscured the fact that the children are adults.

When she wasn't willing to obey the church's orders to leave him, she decided to leave the church instead, allowing her two children to remain active members. . . .

"Bottom line, on January they 4th they are going to the church publicly with my sins, and my children will be sitting in church at the time," Hancock told FOXNews.com. . . .

"I don't really care what they do to me. But I am concerned about my children sitting in church with their mother being crucified by the church that they trust," she said. "I am very concerned about how it would affect them."

That first paragraph is the problem. Without revealing that the children are legal adults who make their own decision about church membership, the reader is clearly misled. The first paragraph also says the woman was ordered to leave her boyfriend. There is no indication that the church ordered such a move. It did push for repentance and restoration, the latter of which could be accomplished any number of ways. The sexually involved couple could get married, for instance, or refrain from sexual activity until marriage. But as revolutionary as this concept may be to the mainstream media, that probably doesn't sound as dramatic as the reporter was going for.

In my church body, we are taught that Christian discipline, while unquestionably law-based, is part of the Gospel-centered ministry of the church. Church discipline is one of the ways in which we show the love of Christ to those who have lapsed into sin that might harm their faith. Newsflash: we believe sin is harmful and serious. We believe discipline should be done judiciously and lovingly and always with the goal of bringing the sinner back into the fold. In my church, it is done exclusively for public sin (private confession of sins always remains private and these repented sins are absolved, of course), and I'm aware of it being exercised for extreme cases of gossip, lying and sexual immorality.

It is a difficult enough process to go through without a media feeding frenzy. I can't imagine what it would be like if the media worked so hard to avoid Biblical and theological context and instead spin the story as a hateful church versus an innocent victim.

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