Every week, in churches around the world, Christians engage in a peculiar practice in which they confront and correct fellow believers on a range of issues, which are often lumped into a general category called “sins.” The process for this practice was first outlined by a popular religious leader named Jesus and recorded in a book known as the Gospel of Matthew:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
In modern times, being treated like an IRS Agent could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, so if the person remains unrepentant the most extreme thing that can happen is their formal removal from church membership. If they do repent, though, then the church is commanded to comfort, forgive, and reaffirm their love for the person (2 Cor. 2:5-8).
The name for this practice is “church discipline.” A journalist – even one on the Godbeat – could go their whole career and not be aware that church discipline happens in the churches they report on. The matters are usually handled quietly and within the confines of the congregation. But a case of church discipline involving a family in Tennessee has received quite a bit of attention, with two stories and an op-ed in the local paper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and a feature on CNN’s Belief Blog.
So what sin could make a case of church discipline newsworthy>
Oh, I think you know which one it’s going to be:
Leaders at Ridgedale Church of Christ met in private with Kat Cooper's mother, aunt and uncle on Sunday after the regular worship service. They were given an ultimatum: They could repent for their sins and ask forgiveness in front of the congregation. Or leave the church.
"My mother was up here and she sat beside me. That's it," said Kat Cooper. "Literally, they're exiling members for unconditionally loving their children -- and even extended family members."
But the family's support of Kat Cooper was as good as an endorsement of homosexuality, said Ken Willis, minister at Ridgedale Church of Christ.
"The sin would be endorsing that lifestyle," Willis said. "The Bible speaks very plainly about that."
As you might expect, the article contains the typical cheerleading for gay rights that adds nothing to the actual story:
In the South, it's not uncommon for families of gay people to feel unwelcome or shunned at church, said Matt Nevels, the presiding officer of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Nevels was a longtime minister at Red Bank Baptist Church, but left in 1995 because of the church's hard-line stance on homosexuality. His own views on the matter were shaped by his son, Stephen, who announced he was gay before dying of AIDS.
Through PFLAG, Nevels regularly meets with parents and other family members of gays and lesbians. And it's commonplace for the revelation of a gay son or daughter to put family members on the rocks with their church communities.
"Most of the churches in this area are homophobic," Nevels said. "So it's not unusual for things like that to happen."
But usually the distance grows subtly. A cold shoulder. A sense that you no longer fit it. It's uncommon that people are delivered such an overt message, as was the case for the Coopers.
"I've never heard it extended to other family members like that," he said. "That is definitely an extreme case."
For “balance” the paper gives the church four sentences to tell their side of the story:
But Willis, Ridgedale's minister, says the church regularly approaches people to repent for all sorts of sin. Church leaders have given other members a similar choice to repent or leave for sins such as living together before marriage, he said. And the Coopers' battle was public, captured by television cameras and newspaper stories, giving the church no choice but to take action.
"When a person is in sin they are asked to repent, to make a statement, renouncing their participation in sin," he said.
Another story – same paper, same reporter – ran the next day that provided more balance and greater context. On the pro-Ridgedale side, the piece quotes a local pastor and Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College, who has “roots in Chattanooga.” On the other side the paper quotes another local pastor and . . . some guy in San Diego.
"I view it as a total prostitution of the church," said Ron Goetz, a vocal supporter of gays in the San Diego area. "They've prostituted themselves on the throne of political power. To be invited to presidential prayer breakfasts -- it's just so seducing. And people have just bit, hook, line and sinker."
Goetz's family left a Charismatic United Methodist Church some 12 years ago after his son, a sophomore in high school, came out as gay. A virgin at the time, his son was told he could no longer participate in the church's music program, Goetz said. So the family found a more welcoming church.
Goetz closely follows the gay rights movement, especially as it relates to parents and family members of gays. He heard about the Chattanooga story after a gay advocacy group posted it on Facebook. While it's one of the most extreme religious stances he's heard of, he said it's not unusual for gays or family members to feel ostracized or unwelcome in many congregations.
"We hear about this kind of stuff all the time," he said.
When even the headline highlights that the story is about the “Chattanooga area,” why quote someone from across the country? How did the reporter even find “Ron Goetz, a vocal supporter of gays in the San Diego area”? And why couldn’t he find a source from the “Chattanooga area” rather than the "San Diego area"?
Maybe, for reasons I can't fathom, it's actually a national story. That might explain why CNN picked up on it. At least the story by Eric Marrapodi does a better job of explaining the aftermath of the casus belli:
Elders at Ridgedale Church of Christ told Linda Cooper and two relatives that their public support for Kat Cooper, Linda Cooper's gay daughter, went against the church's teachings, local media reported. In a private meeting, reports say, Linda Cooper was given a choice: publicly atone for their transgressions or leave the church.
Linda left the church. . . .
Her answer to them ... is that she had committed no sin in her mind. Loving her daughter and supporting her family was not a sin," Kat Cooper's father, Hunt Cooper, told CNN affiliate WTVC. "There was nothing to repent about. They certainly couldn't judge her on that because that was between her and her God, and it was not their place to judge her for that."
"The sin would be endorsing that lifestyle," Ken Willis, a minister at Ridgedale Church of Christ, told to the Times Free Press. "The Bible speaks very plainly about that."
Let’s outline the essential events in this story:
1. A woman is confronted by the elders of her church and asked to repent of a particular sin, which the congregation believes is prohibited by the Bible. 2. The women refuses to repent and leaves the church.
Now if you’re a mainstream journalists, here’s a two question test for you: Is this news? If so, why is this worthy of coverage by both the local paper and CNN? Your choice of answers are:
(A) Newsworthy? I’m not even sure why I’m wasting my time reading about it in this post, so why would I think it's worth writing about for either a local paper or a prominent national news outlet.
(B) Well, of course, it's news. A small church in Tennessee is expressing disapproval of the greatest civil rights issue of our time. How is that not newsworthy?
If you answered (A), then congratulations -- you’re likely in touch with the interests of your readers, which means you’re doing your job.
And if you answered (B), then congratulations – you’re likely in touch with the interest of your fellow journalists, which means you’ll likely never have to worry about having a job.