Telling it to the church…

December 19, 2008 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

From this Fox News story, we read the following:

Florida Woman Says Former Church Plans to Make Her Sins Public

 A 49-year-old Florida woman says her former church is threatening to reveal her sins to its congregation after learning that she is in a “sexually immoral relationship.”

Rebecca Hancock told FOXNews.com that Grace Community Church, a non-denominational church in Jacksonville, Fla., was against her relationship with boyfriend Frank Young because the two were sexually active but not married.

When she wasn’t willing to obey the church’s orders to leave him, she decided to leave the church instead, allowing her two children to remain active members.

Now, she says, church elders have given her the worst ultimatum yet: In a Dec. 8 letter, they told her she either has to meet with them and end her “immoral” relationship or she will face public humiliation.

“Bottom line, on January they 4th they are going to the church publicly with my sins, and my children will be sitting in church at the time,” Hancock told FOXNews.com.

Click here to see a copy of the letter (pdf).

A church leader wouldn’t commit to an interview when contacted Thursday by FOXNews.com. The Rev. T. Scott Christmas, pastor of the church, told the Florida Times-Union that the “process of loving accountability” is made very clear to members, and the church is doing “nothing more than following the practices of what biblical churches have done through history.”

Hancock, who is divorced, said the problems began in March, when she started telling her church mentor about her relationship — in what she thought were confidential conversations.

“As it progressed I told her about it and she said, ‘You’ve got to get out, you’re biblically wrong,’” Hancock said.

Despite knowing her relationship was against church rules, Hancock said she never realized that disclosing it would trigger the first in a three-step process used by the church to deal with sinners: private admonishment, admonishment in the presence of witnesses and finally public admonishment.

Still, she said she tried to follow her mentor’s advice and break up with Young, who wasn’t a member of the church.

“I must have gone through 10 breakups trying to end it, but after not having the power to do it I would go back,” she said. “It was hard to give up somebody I love.”

Hancock learned that her private sessions with her mentor hadn’t been so private after all, when in October her mentor pulled her aside in church and asked her come into another room.

“In the room, there were several women that I never told my business to. And they proceeded to tell me about my business and what I was doing and what a sinner I was — just persecuting me.” Hancock said. “One of the ladies was even saying ‘I was at your house when you didn’t come home all night.’”

It was then that Hancock said she decided to leave Grace Community Church.

“I told them, ‘I cannot believe you people are doing this. I’m not going any further — I’m never coming here again,’” she recalled.

Her boyfriend said the church wouldn’t let it end there.

“The pastor kept calling her, and I informed him that she [Hancock] would appreciate it if neither he nor any member of his church contacted her ever again,” Young told FOXNews.com.

Almost two months later, Hancock received the letter from the elders of Grace Community Church, explaining that she had left them no choice but to continue the disciplinary process.

“Your refusal to repent and be restored in your relationship with God and His Church leaves us with no alternative than to carry out the third step of the discipline process,” the letter explained. “In accordance with Matthew 18:17, we intend to ‘tell it to the church.’”

Darrell L. Bock, a research professor for the Dallas Theological Seminary, said that public admonishment is not uncommon in churches that focus on discipline but added, “Most churches would handle this much more privately than this particular community is choosing to do.”

This kind of process normally would happen after “much more private interaction” with the person, Block said, and is normally reserved for church leaders as opposed to “a normal member of the church.”

More importantly, he said, the actions are unusual given that Hancock had severed her relationship with the church.

Hancock sent a formal letter of resignation after receiving the elders’ ultimatum in hopes of solving the dispute. She said she fears for her 20-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter if the church carries out its threat.

“I don’t really care what they do to me. But I am concerned about my children sitting in church with their mother being crucified by the church that they trust,” she said. “I am very concerned about how it would affect them.”

Guy sent me the link to this story last night, because he immediately thought that Grace Community Church could possibly be a Sovereign Grace Church.  I did some checking, and this congregation is NOT part of Sovereign Grace Ministries, although just about everything on their website seems completely compatible with SGM – for instance, check out their “Recommended Reading” list.

Quite honestly, I had mixed feelings as I read the Fox News story.  Some people have commented here on this site that the only reason we have issues with Sovereign Grace Ministries is because we object to the Bible’s standards for church discipline.  But for me personally, that is simply not true.  I fully acknowledge that the Bible does lend support to the idea of church leaders’ confronting members who are living in willfully sinful rebellion.  By her own admission, Rebecca Hancock is continuing to commit sexual immorality.  In our age of touchy-feely, politically correct, seeker-friendly, EASY Christianity, there’s something almost bracingly refreshing about church leaders who are willing to take a hard stand and stick to their guns.

I do wonder, though, how Grace Community’s elders can find it within themselves to be so unyielding and so…unmerciful, especially in light of the fact that Ms. Hancock has officially withdrawn her membership there.  What is the point of publicizing her sin – and I’m trusting that we’d all agree that the Bible would indeed define her behavior as sin – to the congregation?  If she’s no longer part of that church, then what Scriptural purpose could that announcement serve?

Plus, does anyone else find this scenario way too reminiscent of the setting where Jesus uttered the famous words, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”?

But even if one COULD make a Scriptural case for Grace Community’s disciplinary action (and, like I said, I do have mixed feelings about this particular situation – I’m halfway of the opinion that in this particular situation, a very convincing Bible-based argument actually COULD be made for the church’s action), I’d still assert that this situation is NOT very similar to the Sovereign Grace Ministries stories that people have shared on this site.

And therefore, even if one would come down on the side of agreeing with the actions of Grace Community Church, one’s agreement with GCC would NOT equal support for the type of discipline meted out by SGM.

Why, you ask? 

Well, in Ms. Hancock’s case, she is quite openly admitting that she is engaging in behavior that is clearly defined by the Bible as sinful.  But in just about every story shared on this site thus far, the folks who faced similar humiliation at the hands of their SGM leaders did so for MUCH LESS CLEARLY DEFINED offenses.

We’ve had people called on the carpet for “fearing man.”  We’ve had a woman share about being “held accountable” for a case of anorexia that existed only in the mind of her pastor’s wife.  Folks have told of falling out of favor with leadership because they did not believe that tithing ten percent of their income was required of them under the new covenant.

The things for which some SGM members have been disfellowshipped are frequently behaviors and actions that would occupy definite Scriptural gray areas.  Oftentimes the offenses were so open to interpretation and confusion that church discipline seemed capricious and even ludicrous. 

So…even if you are completely comfortable standing back and thinking that Rebecca Hancock is simply “getting what she deserves,” and that the Bible makes a good case for her public humiliation, I’d still submit that what SGM has done to some of its people is far less Scripturally supported than how Ms. Hancock’s church responded to her.

But even as I find myself waffling over the idea of church discipline in Ms. Hancock’s situation, I can’t help but wonder if the elders at Grace Community Church – as well as the leaders of some SGM churches – have EVER read James 2:10-13, which says:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.”  If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

© 2008, Kris. All rights reserved.