Guess which sin makes church discipline newsworthy?

Every week, in churches around the world, Christians engage in a peculiar practice in which they confront and correct fellow believers on a range of issues, which are often lumped into a general category called “sins.” The process for this practice was first outlined by a popular religious leader named Jesus and recorded in a book known as the Gospel of Matthew:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

In modern times, being treated like an IRS Agent could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, so if the person remains unrepentant the most extreme thing that can happen is their formal removal from church membership. If they do repent, though, then the church is commanded to comfort, forgive, and reaffirm their love for the person (2 Cor. 2:5-8).

The name for this practice is “church discipline.” A journalist – even one on the Godbeat – could go their whole career and not be aware that church discipline happens in the churches they report on. The matters are usually handled quietly and within the confines of the congregation. But a case of church discipline involving a family in Tennessee has received quite a bit of attention, with two stories and an op-ed in the local paper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and a feature on CNN’s Belief Blog.

So what sin could make a case of church discipline newsworthy>

Oh, I think you know which one it’s going to be:

Leaders at Ridgedale Church of Christ met in private with Kat Cooper’s mother, aunt and uncle on Sunday after the regular worship service. They were given an ultimatum: They could repent for their sins and ask forgiveness in front of the congregation. Or leave the church.

Their sins?

“My mother was up here and she sat beside me. That’s it,” said Kat Cooper. “Literally, they’re exiling members for unconditionally loving their children — and even extended family members.”

But the family’s support of Kat Cooper was as good as an endorsement of homosexuality, said Ken Willis, minister at Ridgedale Church of Christ.

“The sin would be endorsing that lifestyle,” Willis said. “The Bible speaks very plainly about that.”

As you might expect, the article contains the typical cheerleading for gay rights that adds nothing to the actual story:

In the South, it’s not uncommon for families of gay people to feel unwelcome or shunned at church, said Matt Nevels, the presiding officer of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Nevels was a longtime minister at Red Bank Baptist Church, but left in 1995 because of the church’s hard-line stance on homosexuality. His own views on the matter were shaped by his son, Stephen, who announced he was gay before dying of AIDS.

Through PFLAG, Nevels regularly meets with parents and other family members of gays and lesbians. And it’s commonplace for the revelation of a gay son or daughter to put family members on the rocks with their church communities.

“Most of the churches in this area are homophobic,” Nevels said. “So it’s not unusual for things like that to happen.”

But usually the distance grows subtly. A cold shoulder. A sense that you no longer fit it. It’s uncommon that people are delivered such an overt message, as was the case for the Coopers.

“I’ve never heard it extended to other family members like that,” he said. “That is definitely an extreme case.”

For “balance” the paper gives the church four sentences to tell their side of the story:

But Willis, Ridgedale’s minister, says the church regularly approaches people to repent for all sorts of sin. Church leaders have given other members a similar choice to repent or leave for sins such as living together before marriage, he said. And the Coopers’ battle was public, captured by television cameras and newspaper stories, giving the church no choice but to take action.

“When a person is in sin they are asked to repent, to make a statement, renouncing their participation in sin,” he said.

Another story – same paper, same reporter – ran the next day that provided more balance and greater context. On the pro-Ridgedale side, the piece quotes a local pastor and Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College, who has “roots in Chattanooga.” On the other side the paper quotes another local pastor and . . . some guy in San Diego.

“I view it as a total prostitution of the church,” said Ron Goetz, a vocal supporter of gays in the San Diego area. “They’ve prostituted themselves on the throne of political power. To be invited to presidential prayer breakfasts — it’s just so seducing. And people have just bit, hook, line and sinker.”

Goetz’s family left a Charismatic United Methodist Church some 12 years ago after his son, a sophomore in high school, came out as gay. A virgin at the time, his son was told he could no longer participate in the church’s music program, Goetz said. So the family found a more welcoming church.

Goetz closely follows the gay rights movement, especially as it relates to parents and family members of gays. He heard about the Chattanooga story after a gay advocacy group posted it on Facebook. While it’s one of the most extreme religious stances he’s heard of, he said it’s not unusual for gays or family members to feel ostracized or unwelcome in many congregations.

“We hear about this kind of stuff all the time,” he said.

When even the headline highlights that the story is about the “Chattanooga area,” why quote someone from across the country? How did the reporter even find “Ron Goetz, a vocal supporter of gays in the San Diego area”? And why couldn’t he find a source from the “Chattanooga area” rather than the “San Diego area”?

Maybe, for reasons I can’t fathom, it’s actually a national story. That might explain why CNN picked up on it. At least the story by Eric Marrapodi does a better job of explaining the aftermath of the casus belli:

Elders at Ridgedale Church of Christ told Linda Cooper and two relatives that their public support for Kat Cooper, Linda Cooper’s gay daughter, went against the church’s teachings, local media reported. In a private meeting, reports say, Linda Cooper was given a choice: publicly atone for their transgressions or leave the church.

Linda left the church. . . .

Her answer to them … is that she had committed no sin in her mind. Loving her daughter and supporting her family was not a sin,” Kat Cooper’s father, Hunt Cooper, told CNN affiliate WTVC. “There was nothing to repent about. They certainly couldn’t judge her on that because that was between her and her God, and it was not their place to judge her for that.”

“The sin would be endorsing that lifestyle,” Ken Willis, a minister at Ridgedale Church of Christ, told to the Times Free Press. “The Bible speaks very plainly about that.”

Let’s outline the essential events in this story:

1. A woman is confronted by the elders of her church and asked to repent of a particular sin, which the congregation believes is prohibited by the Bible.
2. The women refuses to repent and leaves the church.

Now if you’re a mainstream journalists, here’s a two question test for you: Is this news? If so, why is this worthy of coverage by both the local paper and CNN? Your choice of answers are:

(A) Newsworthy? I’m not even sure why I’m wasting my time reading about it in this post, so why would I think it’s worth writing about for either a local paper or a prominent national news outlet.

(B) Well, of course, it’s news. A small church in Tennessee is expressing disapproval of the greatest civil rights issue of our time. How is that not newsworthy?

If you answered (A), then congratulations — you’re likely in touch with the interests of your readers, which means you’re doing your job.

And if you answered (B), then congratulations – you’re likely in touch with the interest of your fellow journalists, which means you’ll likely never have to worry about having a job.

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  • Bob Smietana

    This story is too far away for us to cover – but what makes it news is that this family seems to have been disciplined for not shunning their gay daughter. That’s what makes it interesting.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      But as the first story makes clear, they weren’t disciplined for “not shunning their gay daughter.”

      Willis, a father himself, said the church didn’t expect the Cooper family to disown their daughter.

      “But you certainly can’t condone that lifestyle, whether it’s any kind of sin — whether they’re shacked up with someone or living in a state of fornication or they’re guilty of crimes,” he said. “You don’t condone it. You still love them as a parent.”

      So the church said the parents should love their daughter and yet not condone a behavior that is prohibited by the church. Is that really newsworthy?

      • Dingo Dongo

        But it looks like there’s a disagreement about what the church is doing:

        “My mother was up here and she sat beside me. That’s it,” said Kat Cooper. “Literally, they’re exiling members for unconditionally loving their children — and even extended family members.”

    • MollieZHemingway

      “what makes it news is that this family seems to have been disciplined for not shunning their gay daughter.”

      Really? On what basis is this claim made? The quotes from the people involved do not *in any way* support the charge that the church has disciplined a family for not shunning someone.

      • Dingo Dongo

        “My mother was up here and she sat beside me. That’s it,” said Kat
        Cooper. “Literally, they’re exiling members for unconditionally loving
        their children — and even extended family members.”

        What about this quote?

        • JoFro

          Wasn’t this after the mother had already publicly supported her daughter’s lifestyle though? This would explain why sitting next to her in Church was essentially to Church elders seen as just more arrogance on the part of the mother

  • Ron Chandonia

    “To be invited to presidential prayer breakfasts — it’s just so seducing.” WHAT??? I suppose this is just leftist rhetorical boilerplate, but the truth is that this President would probably (and may yet) personally invite the gay couple and the parents to any prayer breakfast he hosted.

  • Melissa

    “And the Coopers’ battle was public, captured by television cameras and
    newspaper stories, giving the church no choice but to take action.”

    What was this about? How (and when) did television cameras and newspapers become involved in this story? Because, if the church community disciplined the Cooper family for supporting (and does “support” in this context really mean that all they did was sit next to her in the pews?) Kat, and then the media became involved, that is one thing, but it is quite another thing if the media’s involvement was what led to the disciplining.

    Sometimes it seems that gay rights activists go out of their way to stir up dissension, simply for the purpose of portraying religions as homophobic.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      Good catch. I should have followed up on that. When I searched the Chattanooga paper’s website I found this link: http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2013/jul/23/collegedale-may-widen-who-gets-health/

      Here is the photo caption:

      Detective Kat Cooper, left, holds the hand of her mother Linda, right, and speaks with her wife, Krista, at a Collegedale Commission workshop Monday. City officials discussed extending benefits to same-sex partners. Cooper has been with the Collegedale Police Department for over 11 years, and she and Krista were married in Maryland in May.

      Appearing at a public meeting to show support for her daughter’s fight to get benefits for her same-sex marriage — and having that image posted in the newspaper — certainly would be enough to get church elders to ask if she condoned her daughter’s lifestyle. Apparently, she did, which is why she left the church.

      No imagine if the same story were about a mother supporting a daughter who was cohabitating with her boyfriend and being disciplined by her church. Would that have been newsworthy? Of course not.

      • RayIngles

        How many churches expect parents to disfellowship with their cohabiting children, anyway?

        • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

          There’s quite a difference between disfellowship over the action and open public support for the action.

  • Carlh

    Although the story fails to report on the question, there is also the question of who made the matter public. The article itself states that the church leaders met with the family members privately–and then the only quote from a church leader is–of course–relegated to the end of the story, after statements of several and sundry activist spokespersons (all of whom come from a particular vantage point, and–of course, again–almost invariably use the epithet “homophobic”). Maybe the story doesn’t need to say who made the controversy public–or even where the story came from–given the fact that the content pretty much shouts the answers to those questions anyway (thereby supporting Melissa’s earlier speculation of “sometimes it seems . . . ” — as to which I’m pretty willing to suggest that the “sometimes” and the “it seems” are examples of giving too much benefit of the doubt).

  • Dingo Dongo

    How exactly does answering (B) show that you’re (likely) not doing your job, not in touch with the interests of your readers, etc.? Is there some supporting argument I’m overlooking, or is this mere table-pounding assertion?

    • Melissa

      Meh. This kind of thing is generally considered an intramural matter, family business. It might be the subject of gossip within the church community, but airing dirty laundry to the outside world is really inappropriate. It is akin to publishing in the local paper what the fight at the Jones’s dinner table last week was about.

      If national papers are going to publish these kinds of disagreements, then they should also publish what goes on in family court.

  • Julia B

    “Every week, in churches around the world, Christians engage in a peculiar practice in which they confront and correct fellow believers on a range of issues, which are often lumped into a general category called “sins.””
    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that “some” or “many” Christians engage in this peculiar practice? Or is “Christian” in this context meant to include only Evangelicals, as often happens?

  • http://outofthedepths.blogspot.com/ steve

    I’m a life long member of the Church of Christ. This is an example of a practice known as “disfellowshiping.” It is not practiced often and when it is, it can sometimes lead to some pretty hard feelings. Usually, a person willingly leaves the church before such a thing because they have no interest in continuing where they are in disagreement. They are on their way out willingly. I recall when I was growing up, it was the sixties, a lady who was disfellowshiped for continual, serial marital infidelity and who seemed not to care. So, she had left already. In another instance, the same action was imminent with regard to a man who had not repented for making a pass at a woman. Evidently everyone in town knew about it and it was considered a blight on the church. He did repent at the last minute. I have a vague recollection of an incident in Oklahoma around twenty years ago when a lawsuit was filed or threatened when a person did not think they deserved the action taken. I think it also involved a sexual incident. I’m thinking it is always either about sex or about teaching some false doctrine. Don’t know why other sins get a pass. That the incident in Chattanooga would be reported by CNN and other national outlets was obvious to me after I learned about it on Facebook and a range of web sites. I checked at this site several times prior to the present moment, knowing it would be of pertinence to Get Religion. It is evident that this is an example of the conflicts that will arise as the culture changes. New situations arise for which there is no precedence and it amounts to a cultural experiment that takes society a while to work out. That the church would disfellowship a person for being gay would not be surprising or newsworthy. What is surprising to me is their interpretation that showing support for their loved one (just sitting next to them?) is equivalent to supporting the sin. Unfortunately, the details and rationale are not provided and we are left in the dark. There surely is more to the situation than has been reported so far. I feel sympathy for both sides. I know the deep sincerity and sorrow the church must feel. And, likewise the hurt that the disfellowshipped feel, now set apart from a church-family that has been a part of their lives for several generations.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Hi Steve,

      I’m a fellow lifelong member of the Churches of Christ.

      The Oklahoma case involved the Collinsville Church of Christ and made national headlines. Time magazine had a 1984 story titled “Marian and the Elders” that highlighted the case:

      http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,921655,00.html

      People lined up 45 minutes early each day to get a seat. Spillover spectators stood along the walls or perched on windowsills. A law student from California had come to Tulsa for the event; one man had driven down from Washington State. Most of the nearly 200 people in the audience, however, were Oklahoma churchgoers, some of whom clutched Bibles to check out passages on sex and sin referred to by the speakers.

      Though the bench seats resembled pews, this was no prairie Bible conference: it was a four-day trial in state district court in Tulsa. And the person described in the courtroom as a sinner, diminutive 36-year-old Nurse Marian Guinn, was not on trial; her accusers were, Guinn was suing her church and its elders for $1.3 million in damages for publicly condemning her sexual behavior. She charged that in denouncing her, the Church of Christ in nearby Collinsville (pop. 3,500) had invaded her privacy, intentionally causing emotional distress and shattering her ‘whole world.’

      Five years later, in August 1989, the Tulsa World reported:

      The legal battle over actions of the Collinsville Church of Christ in publicly branding a woman a fornicator as a disciplinary measure has ended, the attorney for the church says.

      “We’re pleased the matter has been resolved,” said Truman Rucker Jr., who refused to say whether a monetary settlement was reached.

      In January, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a 1984 jury verdict awarding Marian Guinn $390,000 and ordered a new trial. An appeal bond posted by the church after the jury verdict has been ordered to be returned, Rucker said. Guinn had sued for $1.35 million, alleging invasion of privacy, publication of private facts and emotional distress.


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