Can church divulge its members' sins?

DALLAS — Does a church have the right to publicly reveal a person's private sins? A Dallas court is being asked to decide whether Watermark Community Church can do exactly that to a man and a woman identified in court records as "John Doe" and "Jane Roe."

Their attorney says the pair thought they had revealed their sins to Watermark's pastor confidentially and that their behavior should not be made public.

Church officials say they are only following a process of church discipline outlined in the Gospel of Matthew and written into the church's bylaws.

"Basically, we're being sued because we're seeking to love 'John Doe' in accordance with the principles outlined by God's word," said the pastor, the Rev. Todd Wagner.

Neither church officials nor the pair's attorney would specify the behavior involved.

Leaders of the Dallas church said they recently became aware that "John Doe," who joined the church more than a year ago, was "having some struggles in his walk with Christ," Wagner said.

Church elders began the process of "care and correction" described in Matthew: Confront the person one to one, then with several others, then "tell it to the church." At every step, the person is asked to stop the offending behavior.

In this case, the man refused the private interventions and said he was quitting the church, church officials said. But Watermark's bylaws say a member "may not resign from membership in an attempt to avoid such care and correction."

Watermark's next step would have been to send more than a dozen letters to people who know "John Doe" — half to Watermark members and half to members of other churches who know and have worked with him.

That's when the lawsuit was filed.

"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 got 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 it violated the church's right to freely exercise its religion.

The case is winding its way through appeals. Tillotson said the case holds major implications for church members in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"The typical notion of a Dallasite — that if you don't like a church, you can just leave, and that's that — is 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."