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Church, ex-member battle over discipline

The Dallas Morning News

For the leaders of Watermark Community Church, church discipline is simply loving like Jesus.

But for many people, the notion of churchgoers publicly denouncing one another's sins raises fearful images of The Scarlet Letter and Pilgrims in stocks.

An appeals court in Dallas is now being asked to decide where the right of Watermark – or any church – to confront sin ends and an individual's right to privacy begins.

Watermark, a fast-growing nondenominational church in northeast Dallas, says the case involves accusations of adultery, a wife who wanted to save her marriage, a husband who sat on a board of a national Christian organization, and another woman who works for another church.

The man and woman accused by the wife and by Watermark of having an affair – identified in court documents only as "John Doe" and "Jane Roe" – say the church is distorting what happened and has invaded their privacy. (Both declined to be interviewed.)

They filed suit against the church in April to stop the discipline process.

These days, congregations may call it church discipline, "care and correction" or a "restoration ministry." Discipline is mostly private and informal, one friend talking to another. Less often, church officials get involved.

What makes the Watermark case fairly unusual is the lawsuit.

Jeff Tillotson, attorney for the man and the woman, said the case has nothing to do with the church's view of biblical teachings. "It has to do with actions the church wants to take against its former members and third-party citizens who never belonged to this church in the first place."

Church officials say their responsibility is clear. 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."

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