[Note: since this article was written, Matt Chandler has met with Karen Hinkley face-to-face. His apology was offered and received by her. She offered forgiveness in return and now considers the matter closed. However, this still does not deal with the underlying theology that gives women no voice and no place at the table and thus opens the door to further abuse.]
I attended the media-battered Northway Campus of The Village Church this morning (Sunday, May 31, 2015).
After the usual music preliminaries, the pre-recorded video of the larger-than-life Chandler filled the screen with a message from James 5:19-20: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
He spent thirty minutes on the nature of church discipline. Several times he noted that the elders of The Village Church, and he in particular, are not yet perfect. They occasionally themselves need correction. Even so, they are the shepherds of this flock and will answer to God in heaven for their care of the flock.
Chandler also explained the nature of church discipline as practiced specifically by The Village Church. I did appreciate this. I was wondering in my darker moments if the male elders all just got in a circle and routinely passed around the latest erring one while they administered hearty slaps on the backside.
Very much not so. It’s actually worse. What they do is refuse to affirm the faith of the erring one. In other words, they tell such a one, “You are doomed to eternal suffering and separation from God unless you repent and come back under our church authority.”
Near the end of the message, Chandler more directly addressed the current controversy. The attention came about when the elders placed under church discipline Karen (Root) Hinkley. Hinkley, a missionary sent from The Village Church, petitioned to the State of Texas for an annulment of her marriage to her husband, Jordan Root who had confessed to a long-standing habit of viewing child pornography that well-predated her marriage to him. However, she did not first get permission from the church elders to end her fraudulent marriage.
Hinkley also withdrew her church membership. She noted correctly the church had embraced and was caring for Jordan Root. She felt it was better to be elsewhere for her own spiritual care.
The letter resigning her church membership was sent before the elders placed her under church discipline. Nonetheless, the same elders told her she could not remove her membership from the church while under discipline.
So, yes, their plan was to tell Karen she was destined for hell. Jordan Root, however, was not placed under discipline nor are there any expressed plans to do so. Apparently, the elders, none of whom have training in dealing with serial sexual abusers, feel his repentance is sincere. Root has been declared totally forgiven although not to be trusted around children.
Now The Village Church has issued an apology and agreed to release Hinckley from membership. The full text of the email sent to their members can be found here. As several have noted, it looks like it was written by a PR firm trying to do damage control. It actually admits to no wrongdoing against Ms. Hinckley, only to having not communicated more clearly to her their own standards and expectations.
However, in the video message, Chandler did take the apology quite a bit further. Multiple times, he reminded the congregation of the fact that that the elders of the church are fallible. He also acknowledged that on numerous occasions they clearly overstepped their authority and treated people quite badly. Time after time, Chandler said, “Please forgive me.”
He also stated that many policies and procedures that bind those who sign the membership covenant are being given a fresh look. However, and this is key, none of their underlying doctrinal stances will be questioned or changed. They are to be seen as infallible and absolute.
And herein is the problem. Their theology camps on two highly disputed items of Christian thinking, stemming primarily from John Calvin, who imposed iron rule on the people Geneva when he rose to prominence in the 16th century.
One is the question of predestination. Has God indeed chosen ahead of time those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven (i.e., eternal salvation) and thus condemned the rest of creation to eternal conscious torment? According to Calvin, The Village Church, any church connected with the Acts 29 church planting network (note: Chandler is President of Acts 29) as well as any church connected with The Gospel Coalition, the answer is “Yes.”
Two is the question of absolute male authority in the church and in the home. According to this branch of Christian thinking, no females may ever serve in an authoritative role in the church. Also, the husband is the undisputed “servant-leader” of the home. Wives are to live in full submission to them.
Now, there’s lots of talk about “complementarianism” here, and God-ordained male and female “roles” and “spheres” and “gentle and loving leadership.” Nonetheless, the man is in charge. Period. His decisions are final and binding.
The all-male elders of the church also get to make final and binding decisions upon all members of such church. Keep this in mind: there are NO female voices or perspectives permitted at the decision-making level of any of these churches.
With those two points of doctrine guiding them, the church is a set up for abuse of the vulnerable however much they may not want this to happen. With only male voices having authority, all prejudice and preference, known or hidden, goes to the male.
Second, if you don’t agree with these men theologically, then you are NOT one of the chosen, and thus destined to hell. They may easily dismiss you with condemnation.
Now, I want to go back to Matt Chandler, his apology and the empire he has built. There is no question but that this man is the Bill Clinton or the John F. Kennedy of the church planting world. His charisma is palpable.
He’s smart, well-spoken, articulate, good looking, well-muscled, and makes the listener feel as though he is speaking only to him or her. He referred briefly to his Christian super-star status in his apology, noting the world travel, the books, the Acts 29 presidency.
He’s got it all.
Furthermore, he knows that if the church falls apart, he’s going to lose it all. That’s a real and legitimate fear.
My companion this morning owns a PR firm. His comment afterward, “Businesses could learn from Chandler how to do an apology. Extremely well-written and compelling. And definitely informed by a professional in the PR business.”
Over and over again, Chandler said, “if” they have wounded someone, please come forward. He did indicate that people could come accompanied by anyone they wished and meet at the place of their choice.
Those two options were not given to Ms. Hinkley. She was told when to appear. She would face the all-male elder board without counsel or protection. So the church has taken a step forward.
Chandler also acknowledged that they have met the suffering of victims with a distinct lack of compassion. He nearly wept at the end as he begged people to come forward and lay before him and the other elders the ways they have transgressed their trust.
It was a compelling apology.
And yet . . . I have to ask: without the media firestorm, without the exposure of the dark underbelly of their good-old boys club heavy handed actions against those who rebelled against their intrusive authoritative stances, would they have ever said or seen anything?
More, with the essentials of their theological stances seen as utterly sacred and not to be questioned, there is no reason for such abuses not to happen again. Their very theology gives them permission to condemn others, and particularly permission to condemn a wife who dares to question her husband as spiritual and human equal in the kingdom of heaven.
There is a lot of money riding on this apology.
The Village Church is a giant operation with many sites and a large payroll. If it disintegrates (as did fellow Acts 29 Mars Hill Church in Seattle, led Mark Driscoll), this would be disastrous for Chandler. He knows it. He told them in the video message that the church matters most to him.
Chandler and The Village Church offer a good message to comfortable, white, young and attractive heterosexuals. I also think such a message is problematic because it’s very nature denies the need to be compassionate to the less fortunate. Even so, it plays a role in keeping the gospel alive today and in seeking faithfulness to the Bible.
I do not wish Chandler ill nor do I want the giant industrial-church complex he has built to fall apart. There’s much good to be found in it. No institution is without its challenges.
But the shepherds of this institution claim to speak for God. Their words and actions say that a large portion of God’s creation has no voice. Yes, they will indeed have to answer to God. And they may not like what they hear.