Is Public Shaming by the Church Legal?

ByABC News via logo
May 28, 2006, 10:39 AM

May 28, 2006 — -- 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.

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.