When Church Discipline Goes Really Public

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This fall, a man named Jason Thomas posted to Facebook a year-old letter of discipline from his church, Watermark, in Dallas, Texas.

“We are left with no other option but to remove you from our body and treat you as we would anyone who is living out of fellowship with God,” reads the letter to Thomas, who is in a same-sex relationship. “This means that you are no longer a member of our body at Watermark.”

Thomas addressed the church in his Facebook post: “I spent years in your church battling against my homosexuality. I believed with all my heart that God would change me; I prayed for change almost daily. But when I wasn’t able to change, you turned your back on me. . . . Thank you for removing yourself from my life! I am who God made me to be. I cannot change my sexual orientation and nor would I want to.”

The story prompted letters, columns, and news stories. But none of them told the full story, said Todd Wagner, pastor of the three-campus church that sees more than 14,000 people on a typical weekend.

Care and Correction

“We’re a kingdom of priests [Ex. 19:6],” said Wagner, who started Watermark 16 years ago. “We take God’s call to care for one another seriously, just like every serious church should.”

According to its membership class booklet, Watermark “may separate a member of the flock from membership” for the following reasons:

  • Departure from his previously expressed agreement with “Our Beliefs” (laid out in 12 sections including the Bible, angels, marriage, and the end times)
  • Conduct that mars the testimony of the church or evidences a continued unrepentant departure from biblical morality
  • Manifesting disinterest and/or inactivity in the life of the church
  • Other reasons as set forth in the Scriptures

The separation process “shall follow that laid out in Scripture,” which means Matthew 18:15–17:

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.

Following this model, church discipline—or, as Watermark calls it, care and correction—is not initiated through the church leadership, but through the smaller community groups of which every member is a part. Wagner encourages his members to lovingly and humbly correct those they’re close to. “I get ‘church discipline’ nine times a day from my wife,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time our care and correction is private, personal, and informal.”

The signatures on Thomas’s letter from the church aren’t only the elders, but also every member of his community group who initiated and walked through the process with him—those who loved him and encouraged him in his walk with Christ, Wagner said.

His friends and church community even offered him a place to live when he needed more accountability and help as he shared his homosexual struggles with them, Wagner said. Four years ago, Thomas shared his testimony from Watermark’s stage, saying that fellow members showed him for the first time that he could be reconciled to Christ; they loved him, he said, and were “rocks” in his life.

But after Thomas’s friends began to get married, he struggled with the prospect of being alone for the rest of his life, he wrote for The Dallas Morning News. He joined a gay volleyball team and dabbled in dating other men. His small group encouraged him to remove himself from places where he was being tempted, and to take advantage of the church’s discipleship opportunities, which he did for months.

Watermark doesn’t endorse reparative therapy, but does have a ministry for anyone struggling with any sin, from same-sex attraction to anger to eating disorders.

“We don’t pronounce people healed when they say, ‘I no longer desire a same-sex relationship,’” Wagner said. “We pronounce them holy when they go to battle against sin and death, against temptation, which wages war against our souls.”

Halfway through the year-long process, feeling “alone, sad, and angry with God,” Thomas dropped out and began dating another man. Six months in, his small group encouraged him to break it off, so he did. But a week later, he resumed the relationship, and his small group widened the circle of church involvement until it eventually included the leaders and elders.

In total, church staff and Thomas’s small group of friends met with him for more than a year.

“We would never send that letter to anybody who is saying, ‘Man, help me! I am stuck in my sin,’” Wagner said. “In this case, it was hours of meetings, and many tears. It was in a circle together with his friends and their ministry leaders that he finally said, ‘Guys, I don’t see what I’m doing as wrong anymore.’”

The letter recounted hours of previous discussions, encouragement, admonishment, and prayer, such that it functioned, according to Wagner, as “a period at the end of many conversations.” These kinds of letters never come as a surprise, he said.

After receiving the letter, Thomas and several likeminded friends left Watermark.

Lawsuits

Watermark is clear about its correction policies, and that’s exactly what Christiana Holcomb, an attorney at Alliance Defending Freedom, recommends.

“Churches still have great freedom under the First Amendment to govern themselves as they see fit, and that includes establishing standards for membership and carrying out church discipline,” she said. The snags churches have run into in court have been when an individual never consented to being under the church’s authority, or when church leaders announced the reason for discipline to the congregation in the main worship gathering.

Holcomb recommends a formal membership policy, like Watermark has, including assenting to the church’s statement of faith—even better if that includes a clear stance on sexuality and marriage. Members should also know how the church carries out its discipline.

“Members need to know what they’re signing up for,” she said. Watermark’s member commitments state that “by applying for and accepting membership in this church, all members submit themselves to the care and correction of the board of elders, and may not resign from membership in an attempt to avoid such care and correction.”

Courts also look suspiciously on inconsistency, so sending letters for other sins along with unrepentant homosexual behavior is wise, she said. Watermark has done this, in one case asking a member to leave for spiritual apathy after those in his community spoke at length with him about his lack of willingness to engage with the Bible or the church, and as he grew increasingly apathetic toward his wife’s concerns, Wagner said.

Though anyone separated from membership is still welcome to worship services, unrepentant individuals receive clear communication that they will be treated as an unbeliever by the church, he said.

“How do we treat nonbelievers?” Wagner said. “We love them by sharing the gospel with them and pleading with the to repent—but we don’t invite them into fellowship in good standing with us. Jesus is responsible for ultimately knowing if an individual is part of his flock, but we are responsible to make it clear to them that they are no longer pursuing faithfulness to Jesus and therefore can no longer remain part of this fellowship.”

Hard Work

Church correction, especially administered by those closest to a person, is hard, Wagner said. “Most people would rather deal with sin in themselves than deal with sin in a brother or sister’s life, and we constantly remind the body of Christ among us that speaking the truth in love is part of what it means to love Christ himself (Gal. 6:1–2, Prov. 27:5–6, 1 Thess. 5:14).”

The body of Christ, like a marriage, requires “steadfast attentiveness,” he said. “Conflict [in order to correct] is an opportunity to glorify God, to serve others, and to grow ourselves. It’s a win-win-win.”

He encourages pastors to teach members how to engage in conflict well: “It’s a man’s glory to overlook an offense [Prov. 19:11] . . . but anything that dishonors God, damages relationships, hurts other people, or compromises the ministry is too big an offense to overlook.”

Church correction is done best “not in isolation, impulsively, or with a sense of superiority,” Wagner said. Church leaders shouldn’t exercise correction only with the “less respectable,” obvious sins, he said.

But when correction is done right and done well, pastors shouldn’t worry about how their words might play in the media. “My job is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord, not avoid criticism,” he said.

The best response to public criticism is to keep your head down, he said. “I don’t expect the world, which doesn’t share my worldview, to listen to me and agree that it’s right.”

Still, there is room for a thoughtful explanation or response. When an editor at The Dallas Morning News asked him to write an opinion piece sharing the church’s perspective, he wrote one, making sure to run it past others before sending it in. And he used the opportunity to preach a message on how “a love divorced from God’s truth . . . isn’t love at all, but merely deceitful kisses.”

While Watermark mourns over the loss of Thomas, and prays for his return, the publicity surrounding his departure has actually been reassuring to the congregation, Wagner said.

“The seriousness with which we commit to caring for one another and protecting the cause of Christ has encouraged them,” he said. Wagner has heard from “no less than 50 to 80” individuals in the congregation and around the country thanking the church for its actions. Shortly after Thomas was released from the church, another member who had received a letter came back to Watermark, repentant and acknowledging the church’s love for him.

“We had a great time celebrating that guy’s reconciliation to the body of Christ and becoming a member in good standing again.”

He said Watermark longs for that same reconciliation with Thomas one day.

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