XPastor recommends readers take special note of the resources provided by Watermark about the issue of Care and Correction. These resources are found in Appendix V and Appendix VI at the end of this case study and in the clarifications given by Watermark in the section Watermark’s Response to the Nation. When this article was written, the church had not yet commented publicly and much of the church’s information was not covered in the initial media accounts. These comments represent Watermark’s account of the scenario and stand in contrast with most media outlets and John Doe’s originally quoted statements. The church adds that the courts supported Watermark’s position at each ruling and Mr. Doe eventually agreed to Watermark’s original plan of care and correction.
The newspapers screamed headlines such as “Is Public Shaming by the Church Legal?” and “Church, ex-member battle over discipline.” The story ran from coast to coast and was fodder in blog discussions, hallway chatter, legal circles and church meetings. A seminal event in dealing with a church member had been captured by the national media. In the past, churches has been accused of being “too soft” on members who stray from the path, but now a church was attacked as being strident and invading personal privacy. ABC News said:
A female member of the Watermark Community Church, a non-denominational evangelical church in Dallas, Texas, reached out to her pastor after her husband had an alleged affair with another woman. But when the husband, identified only as “John Doe,” failed to reconcile with his wife, he said the church’s minister, Todd Wagner, shamed him from the pulpit.
The Dallas Morning news quotes:
As Watermark’s senior pastor, the Rev. Todd Wagner, told his congregation last month: “Sue me. Nail me to a tree. Tell me you hate me. Misrepresent my motives. We’re going to love you anyway.”
In a sermon at this time entitled “I Love You. So Sue Me,” Wagner spoke about the issues of love, care and correction. The church replied and told their side of the story on their website.
Todd Wagner is the founding pastor and dynamic communicator of Watermark Community Church of Dallas, Texas. The six-year-old mega-church, with 3,000 people in worship, found itself in the national spotlight. Wagner is accustomed to the press. In 2004 he was interviewed by Morley Safer of CBS’s popular show, 60 Minutes, concerning the Left Behind book series:
At the Watermark Community Church in Dallas, Rev. Todd Wagner tells his flock that the books may be fiction, but they are based on hard facts. Non-believers are doomed. Safer asked Wagner who would be “Left Behind”: “What would be my fate?”
“Folks like yourself that are gonna be here, are gonna go through all the events that Christ outlined in Mark:13 and Matthew:24—some of which are quite horrific,” says Wagner. “It would be the time of trouble like we’ve never seen before.”
For evangelicals, the Rapture and what follows are factual history, history of the future, prophecy. “It’s not a minority view, it’s not a group of folks that are niched somewhere over there. It’s a very mainstream view,” says Wagner.
Few pastors are interviewed on 60 Minutes and Wagner directly answered Safer’s personal question. This illustrates that Wagner is not afraid to publicly engage with challenging issues. Because of this confrontation of culture with Wagner’s biblical values, Watermark Church has been enormously successful. Besides launching dozens of ministries in their short life, the church has raised $21 million in cash for their building program.
Had Todd Wagner been unfair to single out an individual and share confidential material, information that perhaps derived from a counseling session? Or, had Wagner acted according to biblical principles, consistently carried out according to the church’s established values and policies?
The Media’s Story
The best way to introduce such a case is for both Watermark Community Church and the national media to “tell their own story.” The story broke in late May, 2006. The following is a story released by ABC’s Good Morning America:
A female member of the Watermark Community Church, a non-denominational evangelical church in Dallas, Texas, reached out to her pastor after her husband had an alleged affair with another woman. But when the husband, identified only as “John Doe,” failed to reconcile with his wife, he said the church’s minister, Todd Wagner, shamed him from the pulpit. And the minister didn’t stop there. When the husband tried to resign from the church, Wagner allegedly threatened to mail a dozen letters—half to Watermark Community Church members and the other half to members of other churches who know and have worked with John Doe—detailing the alleged affair.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute, a Texas organization that fights for religious liberties, said the church is behaving this way because it feels it must save the marriage. “They love this individual,” Shackelford said. “They love the people around him and want to do everything they can to bring him back into the fold and get his life straight on path.” John Doe does not feel the love. He is suing the church over the letters and said he is no longer a member. But the church says its covenants, which Doe signed, does not allow members to leave the fold. “All members submit themselves and may not resign from membership in an attempt to avoid such correction,” Shackelford said.
What Secrets Are Sacred?
This case has caused some to question what a church is and what secrets—if any—can be kept sacred. “What you share with a pastor in confidence has just an almost sacred quality to it,” said Robin Lovin, a Methodist minister and ethics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In his book, Christian Ethics: An Essential Guide, Lovin writes that people would not seek help from pastors in their church without the promise of confidentiality. “That is what encouraged people to bring their problems to people who can help and if they can’t trust that confidentiality then of course they won’t seek assistance,” Lovin said.
A Texas appeals court will decide whether the Watermark Community Church went too far in its attempt to save a church member’s marriage. A lower court has already ruled that the church is free to release private information about its members. John Doe’s attorney says his client is now considering a civil lawsuit against the church for slander.
This was not the only article; others ran this item. The Dallas Morning News ran an article entitled, Pair fights church on sharing confessions. Further details are added in this story:
“The basis of the lawsuit was the church wanted to go outside of the church and the community at large, including potentially even their employers,” said Jeff Tillotson, attorney for the man and woman.
They obtained a temporary restraining order April 28, preventing the church from releasing information about them.
But the order was dismissed May 5 by Associate Judge Sheryl McFarlin after Watermark’s lawyers argued that it violated the church’s right to freely exercise its religion.
The case is winding its way through appeals.
Mr. Tillotson said the case holds major implications for church members in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“The typical notion of a Dallasite is that if you don’t like a church, you can just leave, and that’s apparently not shared by some of these churches,” he said. “And then when you say I want to get off this merry-go-round, their response is you can’t quit to avoid discipline.”
A later story by the Dallas Morning News added:
The wife confronted her husband—by herself and with friends—and he confessed, church leaders said. But early this year, the wife, who also declined to be interviewed, discovered that Mr. Doe was continuing his affair with Ms. Roe, and she filed for divorce, church leaders said.
At a regular evening church meeting, the wife Doe asked for a public prayer, which Mr. Wagner offered. Identifying the wife by name, he prayed that she and her husband would reconcile. While he discussed some difficulties in the marriage, Mr. Wagner said, he did not specifically mention infidelity.
Watermark officials asked the wife to make one more try at reconciliation, one last meeting with close Christian friends who might be able to work with her husband. She supplied the names of 14 people, half of whom were not Watermark members. The church sent a letter to the 14 describing the situation and inviting them to a meeting, but Mr. Doe refused to attend, church leaders said.
Then the church sent a letter to Mr. Doe telling him that it planned to contact the woman who was allegedly his paramour—and who is not a Watermark member. The letter also said the church would write to the 14 people invited to the meeting, letting them know about his unwillingness to cooperate, and to the national Christian organization where he was a board member. (Mr. Doe has resigned from that board, Mr. Wagner said, and the church no longer intends to contact the organization).
There was never a plan to inform the entire congregation about the affair, the pastor said.
Mr. Wagner and two other Watermark leaders called Ms. Roe and suggested that she tell her boss, the pastor of another Dallas-area church, about her relationship with Mr. Doe. If she didn’t, they said, they would call the pastor, “even as we would want and expect others to contact us if one of our employees or members was engaging in activities damaging to the reputation of Christ,” according to a prepared statement from the church.
Mr. Wagner said this week that he believed he was obligated to contact the woman’s boss even though she never signed up for Watermark’s discipline, because all Christians are obligated to one another.
“If a sister sins, she is a sister in Christ,” he said. “We are commanded to love our neighbor.”
CBS also picked up the story for local and national publication. A final story from September, 2006, added more details and gave an update on the appeal:
The last step was to make the end of the process (and by the way, the adulterous relationship) public to some of Mr. Doe’s associates, who already knew about it, and to Ms. Roe’s bosses, who did not. Ms. Roe, the Other Woman, works for a church in Tennessee.
Mr. Doe and Ms. Roe went to court seeking an injunction against Watermark from making their relationship public. The district court threw out the case, saying it had no jurisdiction in church matters. Doe and Roe appealed.
The appeal was heard here in Dallas on Wednesday. No decision yet. But sitting through the oral arguments was both hugely entertaining and cause for some confidence in our judicial system.
The three judges asked great questions and seemed fully engaged in the case. The process reminded me of the “lightning round” of a TV game show.
The lawyer for Mr. Doe and Ms. Roe got exactly one paragraph into his prepared text before the questions started. When the lawyer for the other side stepped to the lectern, he didn’t even get to finish a single sentence before the questioning began.
Jeff Tillotson, the plaintiff’s lawyer, got thumped about whether Mr. Doe, now a former church member who nonetheless had signed an agreement to follow the discipline process, should be treated differently than Ms. Roe, who was never a member of the church.
Kelly Shackelford, representing the church, was repeatedly asked what right the church had to discipline a non-member.
Who will win? I have as much experience reading appellate panels as I do handicapping cricket matches. But if I had to guess, I’d say the tone of the questions leaned toward ruling for the church on Mr. Doe and against on Ms. Roe. Assuming there’s a legal and practical way for that to happen.
So, that’s the media’s perspective. But what about the church’s view?
The Root of the Legal Issue
The legal code in the United States includes a concept known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. “That doctrine prohibits the civil courts from exercising subject matter jurisdiction in instances involving church doctrine, church governance and the church’s right to discipline its members for lapsing into behavior it deems immoral.”
Notice that a central aspect of this doctrine is that it focuses on the civil courts. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not exempt the church or its officials from criminal statutes. Texas Lawyer expands on the root doctrine:
Ecclesiastical abstention holds that to allow the courts to intervene in matters deeply rooted in religion would violate the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses. It bans courts from hearing these kinds of cases, much less deciding them.
“We have the doctrine because people believe a lot of very different things about religion and are entitled to create the kinds of churches they want,” says Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas School of Law … “When the state interferes with the internal affairs of a church, it deprives all of its members of the right to act on their understanding of their faith.”
The Watermark case was John Doe and Jane Roe v. Watermark Community Church and was heard by 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas on September 27. John Doe is the pseudonym for the man accused of adultery, and Jane Roe the pseudonym of the woman in the affair (not his wife).
Both sides in the Watermark case hired legal counsel. Doe hired Jeffrey Tillotson, a partner in the Dallas law firm of Lynn, Tillotson & Pinker. According to Texas Lawyer, Tillotson maintains about Doe that:
Doe also maintains that confidential disclosures were made in a secular setting— lunch—to his friend who also happened to be his pastor. Because Doe resigned from Watermark before disciplinary proceedings were instituted against him, and Roe never was a member of the church, neither can be subject to the church’s discipline argues their attorney Jeffrey Tillotson. “Under Watermark’s conception of the case, they could find some sin that my client commits in 25 years from now, and still attempt to go through their Matthew 18 process.”
While that may be hyperbole, Tillotson takes the issue further by stating: “The way Watermark has described the application of the [ecclesiastical abstention] doctrine, there are no limits short of child molestation and human sacrifice.”
Watermark responded to the suit with a legal brief to the 5th Court. According to Texas Lawyer, that brief said:
- Doe and his wife signed a membership covenant with Watermark in April 2005.
- Doe’s wife first approached the church for counseling about her husband’s affair. “In response to her request for help, the church began a disciplinary process involving Mr. Doe to bring him back to his “religious practices” and “bring healing and restoration to the spouses of a broken marriage.”
- By signing the membership covenant, he waived any right to have the disciplinary proceedings remain confidential.
- “In an April 26 letter, which is detailed in Watermark’s brief, church elders informed Doe that unless he responded to them by May 1, the elders would be obliged to “inform the body of Christ of such actions which do not coincide with your professed beliefs and reflect an unrepentant heart.”
Roe and Doe responded:
- “Appellant Roe alleges in her brief that church “representatives” phoned her and threatened to reveal Doe’s confidences to Roe’s employer, a Nashville church, and “members of Ms. Roe’s Nashville community” where she resides.”
- “On April 28, Doe and Roe filed a suit in the 162nd District Court of Dallas County alleging breach of fiduciary duty, and sought to enjoin the church from further disclosing Doe’s confidences. A temporary restraining order, though initially granted, was later dissolved by the trial court, which dismissed the case. Doe and Roe later then appealed.”
Kelly Shackelford was Watermark’s attorney. He sees the Watermark case as seminal for religious freedom:
In my opinion, the cases described below so affect the Church that every congregation in Texas should be earnestly praying for these cases with intensity and persistence.
Westbrook v. Penley—We will be arguing this case before the Texas Supreme Court on September 26. This case arose out of a church following Matthew 18. The case result will go much broader either way—affecting the freedom of all churches and religious schools to follow their doctrine. This is the first time the Supreme Court has dealt with this issue, and it will decide whether plaintiff attorneys can start bringing cases against Texas churches statewide.
Doe v. Watermark Church—I will be arguing this case on September 27 at the Dallas Court of Appeals. It obviously covers the same big constitutional religious freedom issues as the Penley case does (whether individuals can now begin suing churches across Texas). Even worse, this one involved an actual Restraining Order prohibiting the church from engaging in religious speech on particular sins. We have had the injunction thrown out so far.
The legal issues center on the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention and whether it applies to the Watermark case—and if so, how much?
Watermark’s Response to the Nation
Todd Wagner had discussed the concepts of “care and correction” in a 26-minute interview on the Drew Marshall Show, an internationally syndicated radio show. On a Sunday morning in late May, he talked to Watermark Church about the issues of love, care and correction in a sermon entitled, “I Love You. So Sue Me.” In this message, he also interviewed Watermark’s attorney, Kelly Shackelford and discussed “the issues of the wall of separation of church and state.” Both the sermon and the Drew Marshall interview are available for download at the church’s website, Watermark Radio.
In response to the articles in the media, the Elders posted official statements on the church’s website. Watermark Community Church is led by its Elders, a group of five men. Seeing that they had acted in accordance with the church’s stated and published values, they felt no compunction about countering the media’s stories.
The church’s statement was prefaced with a link to a webpage of a “collection of quotes from the Dallas Morning News about our care and correction process.” Whereas the national media had used the terms “shaming” or “church discipline,” Watermark prefers to call the process “care and correction.” The church’s statement began by noting:
As a result of the interest and confusion generated by recent media accounts of a lawsuit filed by a Watermark member against the church, it is our desire to clearly summarize pertinent facts. Our purpose in sharing these facts is to allow those wanting to understand our actions the opportunity to deal with truths and not be forced to speculate.
- “Mr. Doe and Mrs. Doe” are married and are members of Watermark.
- “Mrs. Doe” came forward asking for help related to challenges in her marital relationship.
- “Mr. Doe or Ms. Roe” did not reveal information or participate in a “private confessional” with any Watermark staff that resulted in this process.
- As part of the process, “Mr. Doe and Mrs. Doe” included other people, both members at Watermark and others outside Watermark, in the discussions regarding the marital struggle. There was never a one-on-one confessional between Mr. Doe and Todd Wagner, or Mr. Doe and any other staff or church member that initiated the Matthew 18 process, as has been reported in the news. As “Mrs. Doe” sought help to repair the marriage, she approached the church and as a result the church continued to reach out to “Mr. Doe” and later “Ms. Roe” in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.
- The final step in the Matthew 18 process was to close the communications with those that were personally involved with “Mr. and Mrs. Doe and Ms. Roe” and to clarify the church’s need to separate from “Mr. Doe’s” continued behavior. The lawsuit was filed in April by “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe” to prevent this letter from being sent to those people already involved with “Mr. Doe and Ms. Roe.” There was never a planned letter to the entire congregation—indeed, close to 100% of the membership knew nothing of “Mr. and Mrs. Doe and Ms. Roe” until the lawsuit was filed.
- A temporary restraining order was entered without Watermark being present to challenge any representations made at the hearing. After a hearing with all present, the Court dismissed the case. The dismissal was upheld by a district judge days later. With the case now twice dismissed, “Mr. Doe and Ms. Roe” filed an appeal with the Dallas Court of Appeals, which is currently pending.
- As in any similar case, we encourage all followers of Christ in relationship with such individuals, to continue in prayer for them, while calling them to a true knowledge of the Lord, repentance in their sin and reconciliation to: God, their spouse, and other damaged relationships—including the church (Watermark and universal body of Christ). We eagerly await the day that “Mr. Doe” chooses to reconcile. We long to “forgive and comfort him, [that he may not] be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” and we may “reaffirm our love for him” (2 Cor. 2:7-8). We ask that you continue to love “Mr. Doe” along with us in accordance with scripture, urging him to seek restoration in all his relationships.
The Elders of Watermark Community Church
Watermark Church had no problem asserting their perspective on the facts, sometimes directly countering items related in the media stories.
Watermark’s Values and Membership
The “Care and Correction Process” for Watermark is rooted deeply in the church’s values. The church desires to “radically commit ourselves to authenticity because nothing chases away skeptics faster then hypocrisy.” The Church has what it calls the “ABC’s of Watermark” to communicate its self-defined vision (the ABC’s are not to be confused with the American Broadcasting Company). The “A” is for Authenticity:
A—Authenticity—We radically commit ourselves to authenticity because nothing chases away skeptics faster than hypocrisy. As we become authentic “Christ followers,” we will be most effective in introducing others to the life-change that comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. God’s Word calls all individuals to be complete in their understanding of Jesus Christ and in their response to Him. As His church we must balance our ministry efforts to match this purpose.
The church concludes the “ABC’s” with a statement on their importance:
In short, if the Watermark community is known for its Authenticity, it will draw people into the process of balanced ministry characterized by the 4B’s, which will then produce followers of Christ whose lives are increasingly described by the 5C’s.
This statement shows that the church has a highly developed sense of calling and focus. Their desire is for “authenticity,” which is the first “A” of the ABC’s, has great bearing on this case. Thus, the “Care and Correction Process” is at the heart of Watermark’s values.
An outworking of this desire for authenticity is what Watermark calls “Committed to Community.” One can here begin to see the outworking of the “Care and Correction Process.” The church believes that “Belonging to our community requires a visible commitment to being intentionally involved with others in accountable and encouraging relationships.” Membership is important at Watermark:
Membership in our body requires a tangible commitment to our purposes and our vision as outlined in our membership class. Everyone is welcome to attend our church and participate in our times of celebration and encouragement. It is our intention, however, to call all believers in our midst into membership.
We desire our fellowship to be a caring family that values community, informality, spontaneity, freedom of expression, humor, fun, commitment and loyalty. In our pursuit of holiness, we will acknowledge our imperfection and provide an environment in which people are free to risk, fail and find grace and encouragement in time of need.
Thus, the desire for authenticity drives the church to have a church membership that emphasizes accountability. The “Care and Correction Process” is rooted in church membership—and the process is primarily directed toward members.
The constitution of the church explains the role of members and their expectations. Section 1 of Article IV of the church’s constitution describes two types of membership at Watermark:
While we acknowledge that all true believers in Jesus Christ are positionally members of the church universal, membership in this local body requires participation in, and commitment to:
- the Beliefs & Governance of this church;
- intentional community with members of this local body; and
- the use of whatever gift(s) he has received to serve others, in order that he may do his part in faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.
As a result, we acknowledge two types of membership at this church:
- Positional Membership – which includes all true believers in Jesus Christ; and
- Participatory Membership – which includes true believers in Jesus Christ who have committed themselves to this local body as outlined above (hereinafter “Members”).
Section 2 describes the fourfold process of becoming a “participatory member” at Watermark:
Individuals may present themselves for Membership upon making a profession of personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Each potential new Member shall: 1) make a written statement of his faith in Christ and his intent, with God’s help, to pursue a life that will bring glory to God; 2) assent to the Beliefs and Governance of Watermark Community Church; 3) attend the church’s New Member Class; and 4) sign the Membership Covenant.
This fourfold step includes attending a new member class. Thus, membership at Watermark is not open to a “transfer by letter” or “walking an aisle.” Membership at Watermark takes an individual’s desire and protracted action.
Membership at Watermark contains aspects of the “Authenticity” in the “ABC’s.” The Elders are charged with overseeing the spiritual health of the Watermark congregation:
A person is a Member of this church only as long as he lives within this community of faith and is actively pursuing the Calling, Convictions and Commitments of this church. It is the Elders’ responsibility to “know well the condition of the flock,” to encourage steadfastness of all individual Members and to advise Members of the consequences of not abiding by their commitments as Members, including eventual removal from Membership.
Thus, it is seen that the Elders may advise members about not living according to the “calling, convictions and commitments of this church.” Section 4 details the “care and correction of participatory members:”
It is the responsibility of the Board of Elders, as described in Acts 20:28, to “be on guard for themselves and all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers to shepherd the