Another Church Discipline Story Hits the News: The Village Church, a Missionary Who Watched Child Porn, and His Wife

Update #3:  Praise God.  The Village and Karen Hinkley have reconciled.  The Village apologized for how heavy-handed they were and agreed that she should have been released from membership when she asked, and she forgave them.

Update #2: I had written most of this post two days ago before finally completing it and posting it, and I had yet to see the response from Karen Hinkley until after I did so (linked below).  I only had time to link it without responding, so I’ll do it in now, even though this whole post is ridiculously long already.

I learned some new things in her email and I’m not above saying that I was wrong on certain things, so I want to clarify things in the post (I will not edit it, so everyone can see what I originally wrote).  I will say, though, that her email confirms my suspicion that there is a lot of miscommunication and difference of perspective here and not intentional deceit by either side.

-I implied in this post that Ms. Hinkley completely refused to meet with The Village’s leaders, but this is not so.  She in fact did meet with them but stopped when she felt it was no longer helpful.  I can still see how in the church’s eyes that this still constitutes refusal on her part to talk things out, but in her view she gave it a fair go.

-I can also see the confusion on annulment.  Still, I put significant responsibility on her because while she says that the bylaws did not specify that the church viewed annulment as divorce, she admits that this on the church’s website.  Also, this is something that would have easily been clarified had she spoken about it with the elders.  As a member, she should know these things.  That said, The Village deserves some blame here too for not making that clear in the bylaws because they should know that distinctions between annulment and divorce are debated issues in the church.

-With that confusion in mind, it is easy to see how they come down on this issue so differently.  Ms. Hinkley views her marriage as a complete fraud because she would never have married her ex husband had she knew about his sin, but The Village sees her marriage as genuine (and therefore, her end of it as divorce), and they would probably argue that a lot of couples learn new sins about one another that possibly could have changed their decision in the past, but the fact of the matter is that both made a lifelong commitment before the Lord to make it work.  This is not an easy subject, and that very fact should have led both sides to be more charitable in how they’re interpreting the actions of the other.  Also, I can see how the word “immediately” can be interpreted differently.  From the church’s view, she never discussed annulment with them and went ahead at it, so they saw it as “immediately,” while she rejects the term because she prayed about it for many days.

-It was not The Village but rather SIM who first reported the situation to the authorities.  Ms. Hinkley expresses doubt that The Village was open about all of this, but that sounds odd: Even if it were SIM who did it first, that would mean that The Village doesn’t need to report it first because the FBI already knows.  Their role would be to remain open and honest with an investigation, which they claimed they were.

-I can also see why The Village waited a little bit to see where SIM’s and the FBI’s investigation would go.  If the required authorities know, there is no reason for them to go about telling everyone without further knowledge about the situation.  You do not want to jump to conclusions about something this serious, and one has to balance between being cautious and destroying someone’s life.  Ms. Hinkley disagrees with the amount of time it took for The Village to inform all the members after the conclusion of SIM’s investigation (they apparently already told all the leaders, especially those in children’s ministry), but it’s hard to jump to conclusions here because The Village may have waited for legitimate reasons.

-One big and obvious difference in perspective is this: Ms. Hinkley viewed her membership over right when she went in her letter, so all discipline was nonsensical.  The Village did not view it that way.  I still think she should have met with them at least one more time, say what she thought, attempt to hash it out, and if they still couldn’t come to an agreement, tell them that she was leaving no matter what they said.  There’s really nothing more they can do after that.

-Still, I think, as I said below, that this emphasis on church authority was heavy handed by The Village.  They are shepherds, not lords.  Also, it seems that their level of care for her was not as apparent as it was for her ex husband, which if true was a grave misstep on their part.  There is also a bit of wisdom needed to know when constantly reaching out to someone is causing more harm than good, and in this case, it does seem that The Village should have stopped a lot earlier.

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Update:  Ms. Hinkley has responded to an email The Village sent on the situation.  You can find it here.

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Because of car trouble this past Sunday, I could not get to my church in Arlington so I attended The Village’s Dallas campus.  As the service began, the campus pastor alluded to current events that he said were heartbreaking and told everyone in attendance that they could find the church’s public statement on it on the church’s website.  He also reiterated that The Village avoids discussing a member’s personal life in public, though the church leadership always remains open in communication with its members.  Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I looked it up on my phone and saw the sad story of a missionary couple’s marriage and ministry that was shattered by terrible sin of the husband.

Jordan and Karen Root (now Hinkley) were missionaries overseas, but it was found out that Jordan was into child pornography.  The sending organization, SIM, understandably sent them back to their home church, The Village, where Jordan confessed.  He was reported to the authorities by The Village and all the members were emailed about the situation.  However, since he was repentant (at least, according to the church’s view), the church put him on what can be described as a restoration process.  He can still attend service, but a church member always has to accompany him and he is disallowed from entering into the children’s building.  As of now, the authorities have not decided to arrest him and the legal issues here seem murky to me since I have no idea how they handle things that happen overseas.  In any case, this happened months ago, so why are we hearing about just now?

Apparently, Karen sought an annulment of her marriage and also wanted to resign her membership with The Village.  She has not been interested in meeting with church leadership at all despite numerous pleas, and because it seems like her annulment violated The Village’s view on divorce, she was told that she could be placed under discipline.  Also, because The Village, like many church’s, do not “cleanly” release people from membership if they are under discipline and not in good standing, the church refused her request for resignation.  Evidently, she has claimed that the church “spiritually abused” and “harassed” her with texts pleading to meet with her, and she eventually went public.  Her complete public statement can be found here.

This is no doubt a sad story on many levels, and it is difficult to address due to the strong emotions such a story evokes.  Nonetheless, I’ll try to hit upon a number of issues brought up here, including whether The Village actually did something egregiously wrong or if, in fact, Karen Hinkley and her defenders are in the wrong.  This may seem mighty insensitive for me to tackle, but I’ve never been one to believe that emotions dictate truth.  I do not doubt that these events have dealt unimaginable harm spiritually and emotionally to Ms. Hinkley, but this simply does not automatically make her or anyone right.  What needs to be done is to look at this situation with as objective a lens as possible, using both Scripture and calm reasoning.  I know that’s not going to make everyone happy, but again, what we feel and what is true are not always the same thing.

Before I begin, I want to come clean about any potential biases I may have: I am not nor ever was a member of The Village, and I have always been a frequent critic of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement as well as Reformed theology, categories that fit The Village’s leadership.  I am also not the biggest fan of multi-site mega churches, though I understand that sometimes it happens through no initial planning on the church’s part.  That said, I have always respected and liked Matt Chandler and their Gospel focus there, even despite some disagreement, and my sister and others I know are either members there or regular attendees.

With that out of the way, on to the issue at hand.  First off, there is one absolutely wrong reaction, and that is that both membership and church discipline are wrong in themselves.  This is a common refrain from both secular people and from even Christians who dislike those concepts, and such people also came out of the woodwork after all the drama surrounding Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill.  This is, frankly, a biblically ignorant position.  Since I wrote about this before, I’ll simply link to my past articles while reiterating that while I found plenty to criticize about Driscoll and Mars Hill, such abuses do not mean that church discipline and church membership are illegitimate in themselves.  My article on church discipline itself is here, my post on written covenants is here, and my comments on the problems with Mark Driscoll are here.

A second obvious problem here is how some people are reporting this.  Even the Christianity Today article’s headline is, “Church disciplines wife for wanting to divorce husband who admitted paedophile leanings,” which grossly oversimplifies the issue and immediately slants the reader against the church.  At least, though, the article itself was a lot more fair than other Christian sources that reported on this because it actually tried to report the church’s side on the matter.  For many other websites, the headlines are even more slanted and they even report some misleading things.  For example, this website insinuates that The Village does not know what Mr. Root did was a crime that should be reported (when they in fact did report to the authorities, as required by Texas law), and others imply that The Village is trying to “protect” him with secrecy by even not telling parents about this when this is demonstrably false.  This is simply not even-handed reporting and analysis, and jumping to conclusions that she is a “hero” for going public often shows these people’s eagerness to attack what they perceive to be strongholds of evangelicalism which they do not like.

Third, and this is getting to the point of pure silliness, these sites are now trying to attack the character of Matt Chandler for blasting an anonymous email that said something stupid to him.  Five years ago.  Chandler called people who write anonymous emails like that “immature weak little cowards.”  Gasp!  That wasn’t loving!  Feelings!  Emotions!  He’s not a good pastor!  Give me a break.  First, this has nothing to do with the issue at hand.  It’s just an ad hominem attack.  Second, even if one were to agree that Chandler was out of line here (I actually think I was visiting that day when he said this), this would just be one instance where a pastor messed up.  I’ve seen many pastors and teachers say things they shouldn’t, and that does not mean the entirety of their ministry is now under suspicion (it’s not like he went up there and cussed his head off and spouted heresy).  Even pastors should be allowed to review what they say and repent when they do something wrong, and Chandler has often apologized for saying things in a highly charged manner.  Third, it is debatable whether or not this is all that out of line.  People tend to forget the harsh language that Jesus, Paul, and some OT prophets had for people, and it’s not because they weren’t loving but because they discerned that such language was necessary to get the message across.  Paul straight up called the Galatians “foolish” and sarcastically said he wanted the Judaizers to emasculate themselves.  One can only imagine if Paul were alive today how many Christians would get their feelings hurt over things he said and call for him to step down from ministry.  Fact of the matter is, sending childish emails like that actually is “immature,” “weak,” and “cowardly,” which is quite the opposite from the bravado shown in their message.  Don’t get mad at truth.  Chandler couldn’t even know if that person was even a member because, after all, it was anonymous.  Often, such tacky anonymous criticisms are drive-by shootings.  I’m not against anonymous blogging or Internet comments themselves, but if you’re going to send a personal email, it absolutely is a sign of maturity that you put your name on it.  I will say nothing further on this right now because I find it ludicrous that these sites are resorting to such tactics, betraying the fact that they have axes to grind.

Those are mostly tangential issues, though still important.  The key questions are these: Did The Village make a mistake here, and was Ms. Hinkley right in her assessment of the situation and for going public?  I doubt any of us have the full story (and probably never will), but I’ll address The Village first before Ms. Hinkley.

1.  The Village was not trying to keep a secret.

The Village told their church members everything months ago when it happened and reported his behavior to the proper authorities, and apparently the FBI investigated his computer.  This is simply a matter of fact.  Did they go to the media with it?  No, but why would they?  Are they supposed to air everyone’s sins out there, especially when the authorities (which, again, they did report to) have not arrested him yet?  No healthy church would do that.  They told everyone at the church and took steps to make sure that he stayed away from children as they tried to restore him.  Also, any good church would warn other churches about a guy like that if he decided to try to leave and simply go someplace else.

2.  The Village is not trying to make Mr. Root the victim and Ms. Hinkley the perpetrator.

This was claimed by Ms. Hinkley herself, and this is simply false.  They’ve said repeatedly that what he did was egregious sin that very well could land him in jail (which they obviously have no authority to throw him in).  However, as a church, they feel like he’s shown repentance and they’re attempting to walk him through it.  They clearly see him as an offender but are trying to follow Scripture when someone shows repentance.  Maybe you think it’s fake repentance, but then the problem is not that they’re trying to treat him like a victim but that they’re being fooled by him.  It is clear that the discipline is not because they feel like she is victimizing her ex husband but that she is violating the church’s views on divorce, which she agreed to abide by per her membership agreement.

3.  I know for a fact that members who knew here were urged to reach out to her and not shun her like how Mars Hill instructed members to treat people under discipline.

This is important to point out for people who are trying to equate how the two churches executed church discipline.

4.  This episode shows how difficult it is for a church like The Village to handle situations like this because the pastors are often remote from the people.

To their credit, The Village leaders repeatedly asked to meet with Ms. Hinkley, though perhaps they went overboard when it was clear that she wanted no part in it.  However, it is difficult for members there to personally open up to the staff at mega churches because, well, let’s be real here, the staff may not even know you existed before this (though they probably knew of her as a missionary sent by the church).

5.  The Village seemed to put an improper emphasis on submission to church authority that was unhelpful.

I believe in local church authority, and Scripture commands that people submit to their leaders (Heb. 13:17).  Still, I am puzzled by the emphasis on submission that seemed to come from The Village.  This is a woman that had her world shattered apart, and they should understand her hesitancy to continue attending a church where her husband is still going.  Ideally, she would still be taken care of by her original church family, but sometimes it’s rough.  People have left churches for much less, such as after a break up with a girlfriend or boyfriend.  I doubt her primary problem is submission.

6.  The key issue seems to be The Village’s view on divorce.

Unjustified divorce is a serious thing and absolutely deserves church discipline, but evangelical scholars are still divided on what constitutes a “justified” divorce.  Many very well may think that the exception clause in Matthew 19 that includes the general term porneia (sexual immorality) covers viewing child pornography, but others restrict it to only actual adultery while others think that it actually isn’t an exception at all for a true marriage but only for the betrothal period.  Whatever view a church adopts, though, they should try to uphold it as best they can.  This is the reason that she’s under discipline, it seems.  If you don’t like it, then your issue is with The Village’s stance on divorce, not with discipline per se.  It is important to point out that, as a member, she should have been aware of The Village’s viewpoint here.  That being said, The Village seemed to come at this with a heavy hand.  They should recognize that there are several viewpoints of divorce from people who believe in Scripture and that she sought an annulment because of severe pain, not because she just “fell out of love” or some other lame excuse people give these days.  Pronouncing discipline isn’t exactly going to help.

Now on to Karen Hinkley:

1.  She agreed to the membership covenant, and it’s not like the church can keep her from going to another church.

Being a member, she should own up to her agreement with the church’s bylaws.  Taking responsibility in this is simply the mature thing to do.  If she disagreed with parts here and there, she still agreed to submit to the church as a whole.  If she really didn’t like those things, she can leave as she was trying to do… and even if the church rejects her resignation in good standing, it’s not like they have any way to stop her from going someplace else.  Sure, the church can tell other churches that she left them while not in good standing, but then those churches can make a judgment themselves on whether or not they agree with that in the first place.  This idea of “control” and “abuse” is a bit odd given this reality.

2.  She should have at least met with the pastors to have a conversation.

I understand her reluctance, but if these were Christian brothers trying to reach her, I believe she should have given them a hearing.  She didn’t even need to go alone.  Refusing to meet with them only confused them, and that confusion led to more texts asking questions.  They even apologized if they made any mistakes in ministering to her, and as a biblical Christian, she should be open to reconciliation even if she is very hurt.  Once again, she agreed to the membership covenant, and she should at least be forthcoming and say that she knew exactly what she agreed to and is now refusing to do that.

3.  She should not have gone public with this without speaking with the leaders.

Given the information, the only possible good reasons for going public, before any arrests are made, are if she thought the church was trying to brush this under the rug or if she thought that the church was being bamboozled by her husband.  The former has no justification, as discussed above, and the latter is possible but debatable.  Also, if all she was concerned about was that the good people at The Village were being naive about her ex husband, then her public statement would have taken a much different tone.  What would actually help in relaying her concerns to the church would be to actually meet with the leaders, but she repeatedly refused to do that.

4.  Ms. Hinkley has tried to paint herself as a victim of The Village, when she is not; she is a victim of her husband.

Once again, I’ll reiterate: The Village is not disciplining her because they think she is victimizing her husband.  They seem fully aware that she underwent great harm because of her husband’s sin.  However, she has given them zero chance to help her and to reconcile, and that goes against the membership covenant that she herself agreed to.  THAT is why they put her under discipline.  Should they have done that in the first place so quickly?  Maybe not.  As I note above, I found their emphasis on submission to church authority to be heavy-handed.  In this matter, I think the wiser course of action, after initial attempts to reach her, would be to offer to help her find a good church body that she can go to that is separate from her ex-husband’s.  Still, she is the one, as an adult, who agreed to it.  Her rhetoric here simply does not hold water and unfairly tries to make the The Village into some sort of backward church that doesn’t understand the seriousness of child pornography.

Conclusion

I think that both sides have made errors here that can be criticized, and it is unfortunate that it has become such a public spectacle because it ultimately damages the witness of Christians.  It also does not help that there are Christian websites who are gleefully pouncing on this with slanted perspectives and trying to demonize The Village.  What nobody is disputing here is the seriousness of Mr. Root’s sin.  It is egregious and terrible, and he’s pretty fortunate that he hasn’t yet faced legal repercussions.  Accusing people of not taking this sin seriously is attacking straw men and irresponsible.

Let’s say Mr. Root went to jail or that he will go to jail; that still would not mean that, after he repents and confesses, that God would not forgive and heal him and that no church should walk with him.  This is admittedly tough for me to say because my first instinct if I were to meet someone who watches child porn would be to get the heck away from him, even if he were repentant, but that only shows that my understanding of God’s love and grace remains ever inadequate.  Showing him grace is not the same thing as taking his sin lightly.

On the flip side, critiquing some of Ms. Hinkley’s actions is also not the same thing as taking the great hurt she has experienced lightly either.  I cannot imagine what this did to her, but again, this simply does not excuse any bad decisions or behavior on her part.  I believe The Village should have been more understanding of the difficulty of her going to a church where her ex-husband is being restored, but again, she agreed to certain things when it came to divorce and reconciliation and she is not upholding that.  She is not morally obligated automatically to do so just because she agreed to it; after all, maybe it was a bad agreement, but she should at least own up to that much and put The Village’s actions in that context.  And if she really doesn’t think that agreement was a good one, she and her defenders should give a biblical case as to why reconciliation should not be sought here and why that membership covenant is off base.  Nobody has done that; it’s mostly been emotional reactions and blanket statements.

Church is messy business, no matter how many churchgoers put on a pleasant face, wear nice clothes, and speak niceties every Sunday morning.  People sin, sometimes egregiously, and it should be a place where the Gospel of Christ confronts that sin.  It’s often ugly, but forgiveness and reconciliation are beautiful through the grace of God.  I hope everyone learns from this and not use this as an opportunity to attack people they want to attack or prop themselves up.  I also hope everyone is self-reflective because such public spectacles are rarely 100% the fault of one party.  If anything, this shows how flawed us human beings are and why we are to rely on the love and power of Christ.  I really do hope that the two sides can peaceably reconcile here, even if it is to agree to disagree, and end this public spat that hurts the witness of the Gospel, as said by Paul regarding civil disputes between Christians (1 Cor. 6).  This episode really helps nobody other than certain websites and news outlets.

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