In case you missed it, The Village Church and pastor Matt Chandler have come under heavy criticism for their handling of a situation in which a missionary couple supported by the church divorced because of the husband’s addiction to child pornography. In short, the husband experienced some consequences but basically got a pass while the wife was placed under church discipline. Christianity Today summarizes the story to this point.
The Village Church has issued an apology. Some around the web, such as The Phoenix Preacher, see it as an excellent example of repentance. Others, such as Dee at The Wartburg Watch, not so much. Matthew Paul Turner believes the apology misses the point.
Now, my thoughts on the situation.
First of all, why are we even discussing this?
A common reaction in evangelicalism, whenever a story like this breaks, is to say that it is strictly the business of the church where it is happening and those of us on the outside have no business offering any opinions on the situation. We aren’t there, we aren’t involved, we are observing everything from the safety of a computer screen some 3,000 miles away, we don’t know what all is going on, what other factors are in play, what other mitigating circumstances may exist, etc., so who are we to judge? Who am I to judge?
This is understandable. When two friends are quarreling over an issue and an outsider attempts to offer his opinion, both friends will turn against him. This is true in marriages and families, and it is true in college sports. It is not uncommon for Georgia players to get arrested during the offseason, and sometimes get kicked off the team. Many fans have voiced concern over coach Mark Richt’s handling of the program over the years because of this. But last year, when Kirk Herbstreit took to the ESPN airwaves to express those same concerns, the entire Bulldog nation was apoplectic. Why? Because Herbstreit is a longstanding and well-documented Georgia hater. Herbstreit played quarterback for Ohio State back in the early 90s. We punked him and Ohio State in the 1992 Citrus Bowl, and he has been eating sour grapes ever since.
But churches like The Village Church and pastors like Matt Chandler have an outsize influence which extends well beyond the churches themselves and the communities where they are located. When something happens in churches like this, it creates ripple effects which are felt throughout evangelicalism. For this reason, I feel entitled to express my opinion. When a church reaches the point where its influence extends far beyond the church itself and its local community, then those outside the church who are within reach of its influence are entitled to observe and to comment.
About the apology: It is exceedingly rare for a pastor or church involved in a story like this to issue any sort of apology for their actions, so it is commendable that Matt Chandler and The Village Church were willing to issue at least such an apology as they did. Having said that: Though the apology strikes an excellent tone of humility and contrition, it also reads a lot like damage control, like it was written specifically to those who hold to a certain theological way of looking at things as an attempt to convince them and convince themselves that everything is good here and none of their theological principles need to be questioned or changed. They did not apologize for anything more substantial than not explaining their position clearly enough, though it is possible to read more into it. In short, this is a start but there is still a long way to go. You can read the apology for yourself and form your own opinion.
About the issue of membership covenants and church discipline: The practice of covenant membership is gaining a great deal of traction in certain parts of evangelicalism. As a backlash against what is seen as a consumeristic approach to church membership which is prevalent in most of evangelicalism, many churches and church networks have attempted to make church membership into a more solemn and meaningful commitment. Thus they now require you to basically sign your life away if you want to join. Many membership covenants are legally enforceable documents which control how you relate to the church, what you can do outside of the church, and even limit your right to leave the church in certain circumstances.
Though this practice is now spreading to other parts of evangelicalism, most of the churches which practice covenant membership are in the Neo-Reformed stream. In these churches, the practice arises from a distinctly Calvinistic way of understanding the concept of covenant. Proponents of covenant membership claim that it is rooted in Scripture, yet all it does is take a few key New Testament verses and use them as proof texts for a rigid and controlling approach to church membership which is rife with potential for abuse. We have seen an example of this.
In short: If your theology allows an admitted child pornographer to get off scot-free (almost) while his wife is thrown under the bus when she seeks to end the marriage, CHANGE YOUR THEOLOGY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This goes back to the issue which I have stated in previous posts: What sort of people are we becoming as evangelicals? What sort of churches are our churches becoming? What sort of a movement are we becoming? Are our communities safe places where victims of the worst sin imaginable can find support, healing, and restoration? Or are we becoming a movement that protects its own while extending the closed fist of judgment and condemnation against those who are different from us?