A Dallas megachurch is facing accusations that it has failed to deal with one of its members who viewed images of child abuse and instead made his wife a subject of church discipline.
The 10,000-member Village Church, whose lead pastor is Matt Chandler, supported two of its members, Jordan and Karen Root, in their work with the SIM USA mission organisation in East Asia. Jordan Root was found to have been viewing child pornography and his appointment with SIM was terminated following an investigation and his admission of guilt.
Jordan Root entered what the church called a "process of walking in repentance" and the church was told: "1 John 1:7 reminds us that he is washed clean of all unrighteousness, met with forgiveness, and granted fellowship with the body. Even with egregious sin, we are now called to reaffirm our love for him." He was removed from ministry and reported to the authorities. He was allowed to attend worship at the church if he was accompanied by a member, and also forbidden to enter the church's children's ministry building.
Karen Root – now Karen Hinkley – took steps to have her marriage annulled and resigned her membership of the church. However, The Village Church has a strict 'covenant' membership policy which includes the commitment: "I will seek to preserve the gift of marriage and agree to walk through the steps of marriage reconciliation at The Village Church before pursuing divorce from my spouse."
Hinkley received a letter from one of the church's pastors, Matt Younger, acknowledging that Root's conduct "must have inflicted a great wound upon you, one that we cannot fully understand" and saying, "We desire to care for you and lead you in a manner that is worthy of the gospel."
The letter asks for forgiveness for any shortcomings on the church's part, but says that "we have been perplexed by your decision to file for an annulment of your marriage without first abiding by your covenant obligations to submit to the care and direction of your elders...this decision violates your covenant with us – and places you under discipline". Younger adds that the church's bylaws prohibit a member voluntarily resigning while they are subject to the formal disciplinary process.
The letter says: "We are confident that The Village Church is where the Lord would have you during this season of your life. We believe that The Village can adequately care for both you and Jordan, even as you are separated." It offers a "robust care plan" and a "modified home assignment".
Hinkley issued a statement criticising the church's actions. The discovery of her husband's use of "child pornography", she said, was "an indescribable shock and triggered a thorough upheaval of every aspect of my life". However, she said that "what has become even more troubling than the issues that have come to light in Jordan's life has been the consistent refusal of the pastors and elders of The Village Church to respond in a way that takes into account the seriousness of the situation at hand". She also accused them of "spiritual abuse", saying: "The treatment of Jordan as the victim and me as the perpetrator by the leadership of the church is an appalling reversal that evidences priorities that are not in line with the Word of God."
She told Christian Today she believed there was "an unwavering commitment to an extreme theology of church authority combined with a strong desire to control the narrative and maintain control of the situation" at The Village Church. She said that after she arrived in Dallas, she was told by a pastor that the elders were instructing her not to separate her finances from her husband's because it "felt too much like a step toward divorce" to them and they were "not ready to approve any steps that would bring further separation to our marriage".
"When I asked why the elders felt as though my choices about personal finances were within the scope of their authority, I was informed that 'In a marriage separation, every aspect of your marriage is under the authority of the elders of the church'," she said.
Hinkley said the main reason she decided to speak out was that she feared that her former husband might pose a risk to children. Her story was shared on her blog by Amy Smith, an advocate for abuse survivors.
The Village Church's Dallas Northway Campus pastor Steve Hardin told Christian Today that he could not comment on members' issues publicly. However, he said: "Every allegation we have ever received on any of our members of the nature spoken of in this blog have without exception been reported to our members and to local authorities, including the police and at times the FBI. We submit our members to due process and investigations in every instance.
"We are continuing to pray for those named in this blog and for those posting the blogs that the Lord Jesus would be glorified and his Church would be sanctified through it all."
The church's communications director Kent Rabalais said: "As a church, we strive to maintain a consistent process of pastoral care that follows the biblical steps and principles outlined in the membership covenant and bylaws approved by our members."
He added that the church had "steps in place" to protect attenders if allegations were made against individuals. "We deal with traumatic and tragic situations regularly as a church but our hope is set on the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "The gospel has the power to bring forgiveness and redemption to those who have committed the deepest of sins and those who have been affected and wounded by those sins."
Amy Smith told Christian Today: "The truth should be something that is public, open, and revealed for everyone, especially in the Church. Karen Hinkley has done all she has done publicly and with conviction to help protect kids. She is a hero."