It's a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one's safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract. Alan Shepard link
(I apologize for the formatting-things are acting a bit wonky today.)
I want to thank The Guy Behind the Curtain and his dear wife for attending the service yesterday at The Village Church and for their insightful report of the sermon. I also want to thank Amy Smith and the volunteers of SNAP for never, ever letting us forget the abuse victims.
Today, I want to discuss a topic near and dear to my heart and that is the potential abuses of membership covenants. We are amongst the few blogs that actually laser focus on the panoply of issues of surrounding these documents. I will be referring to a number of posts that we have written that give background to the statements that I am going to make about the application of church discipline vis a vis these agreements.
For the purposes of making my points, I am going to assume that Matt Chandler meant what he said in yesterday's sermon. Let me sum it up like this. He said that he stands by the doctrine but is remorseful for how the pain of the victims was overlooked. That belief will present a Catch 22 for both the leadership and the contractual membership.
Membership covenants are primarily legal protection of the church.
Takeaway point: These covenants were not invented as a "let's join hands and pray for one another and sing kumbaya" agreement. They were developed to protect the church, first and foremost from lawsuits. Once you sign one, you are obligated until you resign or, better yet, revoke the contract.
On 10/24, I wrote a post on covenants. Proof That It’s Not a Membership Covenant™ But a Legally Binding Document. The following is an excerpt from that post.
Peacemakers admits they are using legal methods to prevent the church from getting sued.
Corollary: They are not protecting the individual church members, merely the entity known as the church. Once again: they are protecting the organization, not you.
So even if you are part of the church, you are not what is being protected by these covenants. If you, church member, have a horrible experience at the hands of church leaders, you will find an organization which has protected itself against you. You are the bad guy, the one to be afraid of. Make sure you understand that.
Using Christian Conciliation Clauses was written by The Institute of Christian Conciliation(ICC) which is a division of, and this should not surprise our readers, Peacemaker Ministries which is headed by Attorney Ken Sande.[ed. note: Ken Sande retired in 2012 after 30 years at the helm.] Recommendation: whenever anyone brings up Peacemaker Ministries and Ken Sande, always call him Atty. Sande. It gives perspective. Look what they want churches to put in their membership agreement.
One of the best ways to make sure that a conflict is resolved constructively is to include a conciliation clause in any contract you sign. These clauses are legally enforceable and require that any dispute related to the contract be resolved through biblically-based mediation or arbitration rather than through litigation.Using these clauses may help you to avoid the stress and expense of the secular legal system.
They then put in the expected niceties, obviously overlooking the fact that many church leaders are committed to peace and justice until they are confronted by serious conflict, often brought on by the leadership themselves. Mars Hill, ironically, suggested Peacemaker materials in the past.
Conciliation clauses should be used by those who are truly committed to biblical principles of peace, justice, and reconciliation, and who place a high priority on honoring God and preserving relationships even in the midst of conflict.
Here is a suggested clause written by ICC which should be part of membership contracts.
Any claim or dispute arising from or related to this agreement shall be settled by mediation and, if necessary, legally binding arbitration in accordance with the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation of the Institute for Christian Conciliation, a division of Peacemaker® Ministries (complete text of the Rules is available at www.Peacemaker.net). Judgment upon an arbitration decision may be entered in any court otherwise having jurisdiction. The parties understand that these methods shall be the sole remedy for any controversy or claim arising out of this agreement and expressly waive their right to file a lawsuit in any civil court against one another for such disputes, except to enforce an arbitration decision.
Apparently, the ICC believes these clauses are now in widespread use.
These clauses are being used throughout the country by a wide variety of churches, businesses, ministries, and schools.
Here is ICC's summation:
- Conciliation clauses have been used successfully for many years.
- Conciliation clauses can save you a great deal of time, money, and energy.
- Conciliation clauses are legally enforceable.
Listen to the language ICC uses in this comment. Would you feel comfortable signing this, knowing that they are going to go after you legally if you change your mind?
This sort of clause is legally enforceable.
Here is an example of a Court that upheld this clause.
The enforceability of this clause was recently tested and upheld in Encore Productions, Inc. v. PromiseKeepers, 53 F. Supp. 2nd 1101 (D. Colorado, 1999), where the Court acknowledged that people of faith are free to make contractual agreements to resolve conflicts in a manner consistent with their common faith convictions.
Even more chilling for the average Joe church attendee is this statement found in the above link.
Faith-based preventive law practices are growing more prevalent in the United States and abroad.
Folks you are up against a legal machine designed to protect;church organizations from lawsuits. They are not designed to protect you from being hurt by the church. Remember, you are not considered part of the church when you bring action against your church. I am sure that some of you are thinking "This couldn't happen to me. I would never want to sue my church." Are you really sure?
Continue reading in that post to see example of a litigated court case. Here is another post I wrote on the subject. Membership Covenants Are Primarily Legal Protection for the Church. In the same article, Atty Sande discusses an ironclad defense for the church.
If you can show your people know what your church's disciplinary practices are, and that they have consented to them, that is a virtually ironclad defense against lawsuits.
You can achieve informed consent in a few ways. First, maintaining an attendance for the membership class so you can prove who has received the teaching. Second, a higher level of proof is to have new members stand before the church and actually verbalize membership vows and commitments. A third level, which gives you the best protection, is a signed membership covenant.
You are signing a legal document.
When you sign a membership covenant, you are signing a legal document. Ask yourself if you were told that this is the case. If you were not told this, ask why you weren't. In every other venue outside of a church, you would most likely get legal advice before signing a contract. Why would you not do the same for a church contract?
Remember, everyone, including pastors and church leaders are sinners which means they can sin as Matt Chandler admitted yesterday. Why shouldn't you have the same amount of legal protection that your pastors and leaders enjoy? From this point forward, to drive home the point, I will refer to a membership covenant as a membership contract and covenant members as contractually obligated members.
New initiatives are making church contracts even more stringent for members (not pastors)
In May, I wrote Churches Attempting to Force Mediation and Limit Members’ Right to Resign Under Discipline™. I call this the Hotel California approach to church membership. "You can check in anytime you want, but you can never leave." Church leaders and the lawyers that defend them have come to the conclusion that members can leave a church whenever they wish according to the Law. In fact, the mistake that TVC made was that Karen resigned her membership and asked not to be harassed prior to being placed under discipline. The continued contact by the church was legally troubling and they knew it.
So, savvy pastors and lawyers are adding more clauses onto membership contracts to enforce mediation. Not only that, they are making the proceedings confidential so that you, lowly church member, will never, ever be able to tell anyone what happened. Please read the above post for details. Here is an excerpt.
Members of the church agree to submit any legal dispute with the church for mediation before a mutually agreed-upon mediator, or if none can be agreed upon, one selected by Peacemaker Ministries. Lawsuits between believers, or threats of lawsuits between believers, are a matter of grave concern for the church, are contrary to biblical and church teaching, and mediation is an effort to resolve disputes in a biblical fashion. (1 Cor 6: 1-7.)
Mediation will be governed by the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation of the Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC Rules), unless modified as stipulated by the parties. http://www.peacemaker.net/site/c.nuIWL7MOJtE/b.5335917/k.D8A2/Rules_of_Procedure.htm to access the ICC Rules.)
In particular, subject to the more detailed provisions of the ICC Rules, mediator(s) will attempt to assist us in reaching a voluntary settlement of any disputes through mediation.
The confidentiality of the mediation process will be protected and these matters will not be discussed with people who do not have a necessary interest in them. If settlement can be agreed upon, the conciliators may, at their discretion, issue an advisory opinion. Neither the opinion, nor any communications exchanged in the mediation process, will be admissible for any purpose in any subsequent legal proceeding.
Warning: Keep your eyes peeled for new initiative in your membership contract in which they want you to initial certain sections, etc. These special sections are there to tighten up your inability to leave or to even talk about an abusive situation. Remember, this is not to protect you whatsoever.
Church discipline can be unfair to the contractually obligated church member
However, you trust your church, right? They would never, ever discipline anything that wasn't supposed to be disciplined. Are you sure about that? Let's take a look at an actual example of what would be a righteous application of church discipline. (1Cor 5:1,2,11)
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! (NIV_Bible Gateway)
…1 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister[c] but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.
It is important to understand the heinous nature of this situation. Not only was incest going on but the church was proud of it. In other words, this sin was affecting the whole church. Look at the other sin discussed- drunkenness, swindlers, idolater. These sins are over the top and can destroy a church.
How many churches do you know that have allowed people in the church to pitch multi level or insurance marketing schemes only to see many people lose enormous amounts of money? Idolatry means the worship of another god and that was the recurring sin of Israel in the Old Testament
It also mentions the word slanderer. Pastors loooooove to scream slander from the pulpit when someone criticizes something going on in the church or with a pastor/leader. That is NOT what the word means. Slander means to lie deliberately lie in order to cause harm to another person's reputation. I wrote a post about this: Slander or an Inconvenient Truth. This is important as I come to another main point.
However, did you know that in today's churches, discipline is not applied to these over the top issues? In fact, The Village Church lists the following areas in which contractual members might be disciplined.
Church discipline is a necessary mark of a healthy church and shall be applied in cases of sexual misconduct, gossip, divisiveness, dishonesty, and various other expressions of sin. In accordance with the biblical pattern generally outlined in Matthew 18:15-17, a person who evidences such sin will be confronted in an initial one-on-one meeting, followed by escalating engagement by ministerial and pastoral staff and Campus Elders.
Read that carefully. Who gets to define gossip? I bet pastors gossip as much as the congregation. Divisiveness? Really? Who is divisive and who gets to define it? And of course, whatever they can't fit into those categories can get dumped into "various other expressions of sin." What? Anything? Is this what Paul really meant?
We have written story after story of abusive church discipline. The problem with this system is that you do not know, a priori, what they will or will not discipline. We wrote a post Church Discipline Is Ill-Defined/ The Wounded Warriors in which proposed a scenario.
Imagine that you have decided to vacation in the mythical country of Dominia. You have rented a car and, as you begin to travel on the bumpy highway, you see a sign which states:
All Traffic Laws Enforced
Coming from the United States, you assume they mean things like speeding, failure to yield, etc. In fact, you are somewhat relieved because you visited Russia link and were appalled at the lax enforcement of traffic rules. Suddenly, up ahead, you see a downed tree, which is blocking the road. So, checking for oncoming traffic, you cross the yellow line and maneuver around it. In your rearview mirror, you see two police cars rapidly approaching and find yourself being pulled over. They claim you have broken the law by crossing the yellow line and will not listen to your explanation. You are cuffed and brought before the judge who pronounces a sentence of 6 months in jail.
You protest and they show you a book of traffic rules which includes a rule to not cross the yellow line. There are no exceptions. You ask to see what the recommended punishment is for such a violation and they say they have no such book. They decide on a case by case basis. Basically, you are hosed.
You made a big mistake. You assumed that you knew what they meant by "traffic rules." You assumed that they had laws that would be understandable and reasonable. You assumed that they would be like the United States, following legal precedent, etc.
Take Away Point: You are giving a group of men the permission to discipline you for anything that they determine is a sin. They also get to decide your punishment. You have no rights to decide whether or not their decision is fair or unfair. You assignment is to obey or be punished.
The plurality of elders is not a guarantee of fairness
Years ago, my husband and I approached a pastor with a concern about a secondary issue that was being forced on all the members. It was not something that had been defined in the membership beliefs, bylaws, etc. He said he would continue to push it. When we asked if his elders all agreed, he said "The elders exist to serve me. They have only disagreed with me 2 times in 28 years."
Think about this. It has been my experience that elder boards, in general, support the pastor or they would not have become elders in the first place.
Bylaws of TVC regarding elders link
How are elders and deacons selected at TVC? They are appointed by the current elders. Although the congregation can suggest names, they cannot vote on them. There is little chance that an outsider with different ideas will be appointed. They are self perpetuating group of guys who may not have any diversity of opinion. And remember, all of them signed off on the contract.
11.1.5 Selection and Term of Office
The Central Elders shall have the sole authority to appoint new Central Elders. A man shall be appointed as a Central Elder by a passing vote of the Central Elder body (as defined in §11.1.8 below) after he has been tested and proven to meet the qualifications stated in §11.1.3 above.
The Central Elders may appoint a committee or group to vet Elder candidates.
The Central Elders shall have the sole authority to appoint Campus Elders.The Campus Elders shall have the sole authority to appoint Deacons. The Campus Elders shall communicate prospective Deacons to the Church or a subset thereof no less than twenty-one (21) days prior to a Campus Elder vote. Comments received from the Church will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Confirmation of Deacons will be at the final discretion of the Campus Elders and requires a passing vote. Take Away Point: The system is set up that the current elders can be sure that they get someone who will carry on their agenda. There is little chance that anyone who could shake up the system could be appointed.
More TWW posts on covenants and discipline
- Membership Covenant Red Flags
- Spiritual Abuse Final Exam – Analyze a Membership Covenant
- Another Mars Hill "Testimony: One More Reason to Beware of Covenants
- Mark Dever / 9 Marks Edict – You Cannot Resign W/O Permission
- Peacemaker or Kingmaker? Beware of "Covenants"
- How to Minimize Damage When Resigning From a Mark Driscoll-like Church
We have written many more. Just put the words into our search engine. You'll be up all weekend.
Three years ago, I spoke with a nationally well-known attorney who informed me that the only power that churches have is the ability to throw members out of the church. They can do that with very little recrimination. But, they could have some legal trouble announcing a member's supposed "sins" to the full church if said member employs the following procedure. What we are about to discuss has been “run by” legal experts. However, TWW states categorically that this should not be taken to mean it is an official legal position. Please seek advice of an attorney for an authorized opinion.
- Resign your church membership prior to the all-church announcement. Better yet, before harsh discipline is applied.
- Keep your lips sealed.
- Do not tell anyone that you are going to take the following action. You do not want Sally Sycophant (we all know a few of these) to run to the pastors and report this, giving them an opportunity quickly schedule the all church gossip session.
We give special thanks to Arce, who knows a thing or two, for sending this format to TWW
- Send the following letter, return receipt requested (and tracking, in case the Post Office lets them have it without returning the card).
- Put the return receipt number on the heading of the letter (you can get the form with the number at the PO, before typing the letter).
To the pastors and administrators at ____________ church.
This letter is notice that I am not longer a member [attendee] at _______________ church, effective with the date of this letter.
As a non-member, I am no longer subject to any of your discipline as of (date on letter). After (date on letter), any publication, notice, or speaking about me by any church staff or recognized church leader is no longer authorized by me.
Any negative remark or statement about me, any encouragement that people shun me, or any action other than deleting me from your records will be evaluated for possible legal action for libel or other tort claim against the individuals involved and the organization.
If any one asks about me, refer them to me, any other action may result in a tort claim against you.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. You must desist from any act that may harm my reputation or me or come between me and other persons of my acquaintance. Legal action may ensue.
- You must mail the letter on the date on the letter and they will not receive it for a couple of days thereafter.
- Keep a copy, print out the tracking showing when it was delivered, keep the green card or, if it is refused, the returned letter (they are legally responsible for the content if they refuse it).
- Document any response or any failure to comply. If they (leadership or staff) call, listen but do not talk, except to say “I disagree” if they make a false statement about you.
- Document the conversation.
- Go to an attorney if they proceed to trash your reputation or that of your business.
- Do not respond by trashing the organization
On Wednesday, We plan to look at the Acts 29 network in light of this example of church discipline from the Acts 29 mother-ship aka The Village Church. We have also receive another story from the main campus of TVC and plan to post it in the near future. However, your pastor already warned you these stories were coming.
Suggestion to leaders: Instead of waiting for those hurt and abused to come to you, why don't you go to those who they have let down? Didn't Jesus talk about running after one lost sheep?