Update (June 10): Karen Hinkley, a former missionary at the center of a controversial church discipline case at the Village Church, says she forgives church leaders there.
Pastors Matt Chandler and Josh Patterson sat down Hinkley last week to apologize for the steps the Village Church took to discipline her after she annulled her marriage to Jordan Root, a former missionary fired for viewing child porn.
“Matt and Josh specifically told Karen, after further review of her situation, that she did have biblical grounds for divorce or annulment, that she should have been released from Covenant Membership as she requested and that she should not have been put under church discipline,” the church said in an email to members posted on the Wartburg Watch blog.
Hinkley accepted Chandler and Patterson’s apology, and “thanked them for their obvious sincerity and forgave them.”
“I am praising God for what He has done, and I continue to be amazed by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to bring about reconciliation in the most unlikely circumstances,” she wrote in a public statement. “I know this is not the end of the story for many, but I believe it is the end of the story for me.”
Chandler had previously apologized—without mentioning Hinkley by name--during a sermon at the Village Church in late May, saying that church leader counseling had turned into “control.”
“That is behavior unbefitting to an elder of the church of Jesus Christ,” he said. “We did not act in accordance with the grace we have been shown by Christ. Please forgive us.”
In their letter to members, Chandler and other leaders apologized to the church and to Hinkley.
“We are sorry for our error and how it affected Karen,” they wrote.
The church also said it apologized to Root’s and Hinkley’s sending mission organization SIM as well.
“We reached out to several individuals at SIM, including the president, to apologize for times when we did not fully heed their counsel and were perceived to be threatening,” church leaders wrote. “Also, we are working with SIM to continue in our longstanding partnership to take the gospel to the nations.”
The Village Church told members that it had engaged a licensed sex offender treatment provider to counsel Root and that they would follow that provider’s recommendations.
The church’s abuse prevention and reporting procedures will be reviewed by experts, according to the letter, and the discipline procedures will be “a much more patient process” that keeps an eye out for the need for “specialized treatment that goes beyond the kind of care that we, or even a qualified biblical counselor, can offer.”
The leader of one of America’s most influential megachurches plans to apologize during worship services this weekend for failing to show kindness and compassion to struggling church members.
Matt Chandler, pastor of the Village Church, a multisite church based near Dallas, said elders there had been “domineering” in their approach to church discipline in a handful of cases.
That was wrong and unchristian, said Chandler, who also leads the Acts29 church planting network.
“We have sinned against some people—and we are owning that before God and specifically before the people we have hurt,” he told CT in a phone interview.
“Our desire is always to be loving and caring. It is clear that we have not communicated—in multiple cases now—the gentleness, compassion, and patience that our elders are called to walk in.”
Chandler declined to comment on specific incidents of church discipline due to privacy concerns.
His apology was prompted in large part by public criticism of the church’s handling of the case of Karen Hinkley, a missionary who faces church discipline for ending her marriage earlier this year.
Her former husband, Jordan Root, was fired as a missionary with SIM, an international missionary agency, after admitting to viewing child porn for years.
Church leaders told Hinkley that she should have consulted with them before filing for an annulment. When she tried to withdraw her membership, the Village Church placed her under discipline, citing the congregation’s Covenant Membership policies.
Until Thursday, the two sides were at a standstill.
Hinkley, who no longer considers herself a member of the Village Church, had asked its elders to leave her alone.
“I ask that The Village Church refrain from any future communication on my behalf to my friends, family, and supporters,” she wrote them in her February 11 resignation letter.
Church leaders had refused to comply with that request for weeks and were proceeding with church discipline.
They reversed course on Thursday.
In an email sent to the Village Church’s more than 6,000 members, the church’s elders said they were releasing Hinkley from her membership and had reached out to apologize for their actions.
"We did not lead Karen and the church to a place conducive to peace, repentance and healing," they wrote in a letter posted online by blogger Matthew Paul Turner. "Please know that we are reaching out to Karen and giving her this apology, and we have also made the decision to move forward in releasing her from membership. We will continue to support her financially through August as we committed, and our hope and prayer for her is that God would guide her to another gospel-believing church, where she can find healing and restoration."
Hinkley’s case has raised questions of how the Village Church handles abuse claims and about the church membership model known as “covenant membership.”
A Betrayal of Trust
Initially, Root admitted a long-standing addiction to adult pornography sometime in November, Hinkley said.
A few weeks later, she pressed him for more details, and he admitted child porn use.
“That night he admitted to almost ten years of child pornography use that began while he was in college and continued throughout his seminary studies into our dating and engagement,” she said. “He said that he preferred prepubescent girls ages four and older but that he had seen child pornography involving infants and teenagers as well.”
Hinkley reported that Root had allegedly violated SIM’s child safety protection policy in late 2014, George Salloum, SIM’s vice president of finance and operations, confirmed to CT.
The organization removed Root from the field and opened up a child safety investigation.
According to an internal report, SIM found that Root had viewed child pornography and fired him in February, two months after the couple had returned to the US. As part of their process, SIM reported Jordan’s actions to authorities.
No charges have been filed against Root since his return to the United States, though Salloum stood by SIM’s findings.
“I can’t speak to the FBI’s processes,” Salloum told CT. “Jordan was definitely found guilty of this violation which was against SIM policy and, we believe, in violation of US law. From a biblical perspective, he was definitely in sin, without question.”
In late December, the Village Church learned from SIM of Root’s admission of a child porn addiction and Hinkley’s concerns that he may have molested children, according to an email to Hinkley from Richard Brindley, a minister at the church’s Dallas Northway campus, where the couple had previously attended.
In an email to members, Village Church elders said that they reported Root to local law enforcement.
Chandler would not discuss details of Root’s case. He did say that the church’s policy calls for any accusation or confession of abuse or child endangerment to be reported directly to police.
The church also immediately places restrictions on anyone accused of being a danger to children. Those restrictions including banning them from children’s ministry or any meetings where children are present. Anyone accused of abuse must sign in with church staff, and be chaperoned at all times.
Those restrictions remain in place “forever,” even if the person is not charged with a crime, said Chandler.
Even though church leaders have not always immediately informed the congregation of allegations of abuse, they have informed all the staff, including church security personnel, Chandler said.
The Village Church wants to extend the “scandalous grace” of the gospel to anyone who repents, even those that society deems unworthy of forgiveness, he said.
But Chandler said the church does not compromise when it comes to child safety.
“We come down fast and hard when allegations are made,” he said.
A Matter of Church Discipline
The break between the Village Church and Hinkley came not long after her return to Texas.
She asked Village Church elders to help her separate her finances from Root’s. They declined her request, saying it might lead to a divorce.
Two weeks later, she withdrew her membership from the Village Church and notified them that she had also filed for a legal annulment of her marriage. (The annulment was finalized on April 16.)
Hinkley told church leaders she could no longer stay in the same church as Root.
“I recognize both Jordan’s and my need for a church family who can love and care for us as we pursue our individual paths of healing and recovery,” Hinkley wrote to church leaders in February. “For my own health and the health of all parties involved, I have decided it is not best for me to be in the care of the same church family as Jordan.”
Since Hinkley had signed a membership covenant agreeing to “walk through the steps of marriage reconciliation at TVC before pursuing divorce from my spouse,” the church rejected both the annulment and the membership withdrawal:
…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. As I [Pastor Matt Younger] mentioned in my first letter, this decision violates your covenant with us—and places you under discipline. Per section 10.5 of The Village Church bylaws, you are prohibited from voluntarily resigning membership while subject to the formal disciplinary process. We cannot, therefore, accept your resignation.
Hinkley disputed any claim that she violated the church’s membership covenant.
"In signing their Membership Covenant shortly after my 24th birthday, I had agreed to nothing in regards to the possibility of annulment should I come to realize that my marriage had been a complete sham from the beginning,” she wrote. “There is a vast difference between a divorce and a marriage that is voided on the grounds of fraud.”
Complicating the matter is a section of Texas law that deals with marriage annulments. If a person voluntarily cohabitates with their spouse after learning of the fraud, they do not qualify for an annulment, Hinkley told CT.
“If I had ‘come back together [with Root] for the sake of pursuing possible reconciliation,’ I would not have had the option of having the fraudulent marriage annulled,” she wrote. “I would have been forced to choose between resuming a marriage to a fraudulent pedophile and pursuing a divorce.”
The Village Church practices what’s known as “covenant membership,” where church leaders and members vow to stick together, no matter what.
It’s a long-term commitment where “believers look more like they do in a family” and less “like the consumeristic membership characterized by many churches,” said Jonathan Leeman, editorial director at 9Marks, a ministry that promotes covenant membership and other similar practices.
“In many evangelical churches, church membership looks like Costco or a country club—where a consumer pays for a series of benefits for an agreed upon price and you come and go as you please,” Leeman said.
Most churches leaders have realized that asking members to let them vet life decisions can “lead to abuse” and towards “authoritarian leadership,” he said.
But because the Bible views most divorces as sinful, there is an expectation that members will discuss the circumstances of it with church leaders before they proceed, Leeman said.
However, he said, “it’s important to not tighten the screws too much and create exact policies. So much of this is, ‘How does it work in a family?’ You don’t have exact rules with your kids. A lot of situations are going to be dealt with on a case by case basis using wisdom and not just principles.”
That’s especially important in cases involving abuse.
When churches ask spouses to attempt to reconcile, it places both parties on the same footing, said Mike Sloan, who trains Christian organizations on how to protect children from abuse. But in a case where one spouse is an admitted sexual abuser, the partnership is no longer equal.
“It makes sense that a church would say, ‘Let’s work on this and try to walk through a reconciliation process,’” he said. “But the problem is that they [the church] aren’t equipped to deal with the dynamics of abuse. They’re not getting that not only does it often not work, but it is often re-traumatizing to the victim.”
Chandler admitted that the Village Church has been too heavy handed at times in requiring members to stick to the church’s covenant.
“There are specific instances where we have let our practices blind us to the person sitting in front of us,” he said. “We want to own our mistakes and apologize for that. When we have sinned—we want to own our sin and ask for forgiveness.”
Ironically, Root was not placed under church discipline, since he “has begun to walk in repentance and willingly submitted to the direction of his pastors,” the church said in an email to the congregation. “...Instead, moving forward, Jordan will remain in a season of intentional pastoral care, where his role will be to remain faithful to actions in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20), pursuing holiness and purity, and continuing to flee from sin.”
The church has restricted Root from the children’s ministry building on its Dallas campus, but initially urged church members to say hello to the couple and spend time with them.
At first, church leadership declined to inform the congregation of Root’s addiction, citing concerns that parents might be sent “into a panic that might be unwarranted” and that a potential false report could cause a “devastating stigma” on Root’s life. An initial email to “friends, family, and supporters of the Roots” simply references Root’s “sin issues,” though a later email to the congregation details his actions.
Churches are often ill-equipped to handle those with a history of sexual deceit, and it usually isn’t hard for sexual abusers to say the words of repentance that a church wants to hear, Sloan said.
“We’re taken in by it,” Sloan said. “We believe the lie that we’re somehow ruining someone’s life if we expose them. The offender makes that argument, and we agree with it.”
The Village Church plans to audit its policies and practices when it comes to child protection and church discipline in the weeks to come, Chandler said.
The breakdown between Hinkley and the Village Church may mean she can’t go back to the mission field.
“In general, we prefer that missionaries be in good relationship with the sending church,” said Salloum. “I’m not going to say we wouldn’t redeploy a person if they didn’t have a good relationship with their church, but it would be a factor we would consider.”
Salloum said he did not know if Hinkley could work with SIM again if she found another church which would support her.
“Karen’s a victim. That’s the reality,” said Salloum. “She needs a lot of care, touch, and encouragement. The situation around her got bigger than I think anyone thought it was going to get, but at the end we care as much about Karen as we do about Jordan.”
Chandler said the church will reach out to anyone it has harmed through church discipline to apologize and to try to make things right.
That includes admitting that the church elders have failed to uphold their part of the church’s membership covenant, which requires them to treat everyone—including struggling members--with care and compassion.
“We have failed to do that,” he said. If there is anyone else who has been dealt with harshly in the past or is being dealt with harshly—we want to own that and work to restore that relationship.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the Village Church's email about apologizing to Hinkley and releasing her from membership.