The Daily Beast jumps into church-discipline story, where other secular media fear to tread

The May 31 appearance of this religion story in the Daily Beast had some of us at GetReligion scratching our heads. The Beast is not a site one ordinarily goes to for religion reporting or even hard news, period. After all, this is a nearly 7-year-old website launched by Tina Brown that merged, at one time, with what's left of Newsweek.

However, in recent years it’s attempted to come up a bit in quality. John Avlon, its new editor (Brown left in 2013) said in a recent interview, “We seek out scoops, scandals and stories about secret worlds; we love confronting bullies, bigots and hypocrites.” Thus, the website -- as of Wednesday night -- had entries ranging from “Putin’s New Blitz” to a story about a Maryland woman “Killed by her Back Alley Butt Implants."

Kind of supermarket tabloid meets Foreign Policy magazine. How much of this is traditional news? It's often hard to tell.

Meanwhile, the Beast also ran a piece titled "Megachurch: Stay with your kiddie porn-watching husband or face church discipline.” It’s by Matthew Paul Turner, former editor of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) magazine who’s turned superstar blogger and contributor to the Beast. Turner has written on church discipline before, notably regarding the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, so it’s not a huge shock that he’d jump on the chance to cover this story. Here is a key chunk of the text:

After attending seminary, Karen Hinkley, along with her onetime husband, Jordan Root, dreamed of becoming missionaries. The couple married in the spring of 2012 and eagerly began seeking opportunities to serve God overseas.
At the time, she had no way of knowing that alleged abuse of the most awful kind would sink their marriage. Or that the church would discipline her for wanting to end her marriage to a confessed child porn addict. Or that her pastor would try to block her from leaving the congregation.
Shortly after marrying, Karen and Jordan began attending The Village Church (TVC), a mega-sized Dallas-area Southern Baptist congregation with five campuses and 11,000 weekly attendees. In time, TVC not only became the newlywed’s home church but also the community that would support -- financially and spiritually -- their desire to become missionaries. That’s not surprising; according to its website, TVC supports a number of missionaries in a dozen or more countries.

Then the story focuses on Village Church's telegenic young pastor.

Christianity Today calls TVC one of America’s most influential megachurches. But among massive houses of worship, TVC would likely stand out as leaning more Puritanical than most. Many believe the church’s secret to success is its head pastor, Matt Chandler, a 39-year-old, Paul Ryan-looking rising evangelical star. In addition to pastor, he’s also a bestselling author, a cancer survivor, and among young theology nerds, a rock star. Chandler also heads up the Acts 29 Network, a nexus of hundreds of conservative, Calvinism-hinged congregations, a religious collective that—considering the Book of Acts only has 28 chapters—views itself as the church’s “next chapter.”
In many ways, TVC’s appeal doesn’t make much sense. The church experience that Chandler has popularized tends to be a more rigid-leaning, Bible-thumping, male-dominating, faith-intensive environment—a far cry from most of today’s more popular seeker-friendly hipster-filled churches.

Not a bad intro for a secular readership totally unfamiliar with what this church is all about. The story goes on to describe how Karen and Jordan signed a five-page “covenant” that sets out the church’s doctrines and how each member should behave.

Such a piece of paper sounds odd in today’s freewheeling seeker-sensitive atmosphere but it was very much the fashion back in the 1970s and ‘80s, especially when people lived in covenant communities where they pooled salaries and lived in multifamily households often within walking distance of their church. I published a book about such communities in 2009 because, after a 25-year hibernation, I was amazed to see these communities starting up again. And a new breed of churches, including Village Church, was asking their members to sign these covenants. One of the clauses in the agreement signed by Karen Hinckley obligated her to seek the help of the church in the case that she’d divorce her husband.

Then she discovered -- on the mission field -- that her husband was trolling kiddie porn performed on kids as young as 1 or 2. Understandably, Karen wanted out of this marriage fast as this was a habit her husband had indulged in for 10 years.

The couple returned to the United States and all was confessed to the church but its leaders refused to warn other members -- whose children Jordan had access to -- that he may have abused them. Instead of publicly shaming Jordan, church leaders shamed Karen until late May when word started to leak out to the media about the mess. The Wartburg Watch, a blog that monitors church abuse, began publishing a two-part series on May 25 and May 26 and has followed up with continued posts about the affair. Christianity Today came out with an extensive story -- with three bylines -- on May 28 that announced that Chandler planned to publicly apologize for how Karen had been treated.

Chandler had been in the news before, specifically in 2010 in a well-written piece by the Dallas Morning News that reported on his struggles with brain cancer. At the time, his kind of cancer had a survival rate of two to three years. Village Church was once known as Highland Baptist, but Chandler not only changed the name but encouraged casual dress and more contemporary worship but with a strong dose of Calvinism. Which not only means the Bible is inerrant and only men have leadership positions, but that some are predestined to be saved while others are not.

The Beast story didn't get into the theology much, but it's important.

So there’s a lot of moving parts here and the Daily Beast had a lot of help from other sources. Still, the writer did correspond with Karen to get his own quotes for the story. The second half of the story dwells extensively on this membership covenant and how simply signing this obligated Karen morally -- if not legally, with finances involved -- to be under the "discipline" of church elders.

It’s all a throw-back to the same kinds of authoritarianism that was going on 40 years ago with communes and covenant groups. Sadly, most of the people involved in it today -- or writing about it -- don’t have the institutional memory about the problems involved. I did my master's thesis ("Authority and Submission in Charismatic Renewal and Christian Communities") on this matter in 1992, so yes, I have a POV.

Do read the Daily Beast and CT stories as well as the associated blog entries on it all to get a handle on what these kinds of congregational covenant agreements are and why they are and always have been a really bad idea.

Which brings up one more question: Why hasn’t the Dallas Morning News jumped onto this? We know they did away with their religion staff in 2009 but isn't Chandler a big enough fish to do a follow-up on his latest problems? The matter has been all over the blogosphere for two weeks. At least the Daily Beast cared enough to cover it.

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