Should a church and its elders be held liable in court for disclosing from the pulpit and to other churches that one of its members committed fornication as part of the church’s disciplinary process of disfellowshipping the member?
Or should courts stay out of such things?
Does it matter if the member says they want to withdraw from church membership before the public denunciation occurs?
Should an elder insist that a member choose between publicly confessing fornication to the church or being disfellowshipped by the church?
Should a preacher or elder publicly disclose something of this nature to the public?
Is this ethical pastoral behavior? What kind of pastoral care does this display?
These are the kinds of questions that arise when considering Guinn v. Church of Christ Collinsville, a lawsuit making national news in the late 1980s that involved a single mom and a Church of Christ congregation in Oklahoma.
Elders Confront Marian Guinn
According to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, elders at the Collinsville Church of Christ confronted one of the church’s members, Ms. Guinn, a mother of four, who admitted to the sin of fornication.
The New York Times reported that Ms. Guinn acknowledged her relationship with a former Mayor of Collinsville, a town of about 3,500 near Tulsa, and she said she had a ”falling-out” with her sister and brother-in-law, a deacon in the church.
She Refuses to Repent Before the Congregation, Withdrawal
The court explained the elders wanted her to repent in front of the congregation or the members would withdraw fellowship. She wrote to the elders, indicating she did not want her private life exposed to the congregation, and said “I do not want my name mentioned before the church except to tell them that I withdraw my membership immediately! ….” She wrote: “… Anything I told was told in confidence and not meant for anyone else to hear. You have no right to get up and say anything against me in church.… I have no choice but … to attend another church, another denomination!” She did not return to the church. This was 1981.
Public, Matthew 18, Disfellowship
The New York Times reported that her lawsuit alleged the elders publicly denounced her for ”the sin of fornication” and ordered church members to avoid her. It also said the elders say they based their actions on Matthew 18. The court refers to Matthew 18:13-17 (KJV):
“And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
The court said information about Ms. Guinn was also sent to four area Church of Christ congregations to be read aloud during services.
Ms. Guinn Sues
Ms. Guinn sued for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other causes.
Church Raises $1 million
An attorney who represented the Collinsville church told the Christian Chronicle that the church had no liability insurance to cover its defense but Churches of Christ were very supportive and $1 million was quickly raised to assist the Collinsville church.
Verdict for Ms. Guinn, But Appeal
At trial, the jury awarded $390,000 (the court would add interest). Tulsa World reported it was a four-day trial before over 200 spectators in a standing-room-only courtroom.
It also reported that after the 1984 verdict, the church deposited $480,000 with the court as a bond to prevent Ms. Guinn from collecting any money during the appeal (an appeal bond can be required of defendants when appealing a money verdict).
Oklahoma Supreme Court Vacates for New Trial
The Oklahoma Supreme Court vacated the verdict when it found that the verdict amount included damages for things the elders did both before and after Ms. Guinn withdrew from membership. The court found that the elder’s activities before she withdrew (confronting her, etc.) were the kind of religious actions that did not constitute a threat to public safety, peace, or order, and thus they did not justify state interference in light of the First Amendment.
The supreme court also found that —- despite the church’s claims that “withdrawing membership from the Church of Christ [is] doctrinally impossible” and a “Church of Christ member can voluntarily join the church’s flock but cannot then disassociate oneself from it” — Ms. Guinn had the right to withdraw and that the elders and church could be liable for the relevant actions towards Ms. Guinn after she withdrew. The court remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.
The Donahue Show Video
Before the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision came down, Ms. Guinn, her lawyer, and a group of Church of Christ preachers and members appeared on the Donahue talk show. It is worth watching. Donohue does a good job of letting a balanced discussion be had.
Donahue had lots of women in the audience and many spoke (preached!). Be sure to listen to the last minute and a half, starting at 44:00.
Settled Out of Court
Tulsa World reported in April 1989 that Ms. Guinn, a registered nurse in her mid-30s, and the Collinsville church settled on undisclosed terms, not long after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled.
A Million Dollars?
A million dollars, even today, but particularly in the mid-1980s in Oklahoma, for the defense of matter like this is an incredible amount of money. I suspect Guinn’s attorney had the case on a contingency fee (getting paid only if and when money is collected from the other side), though I do not know that. It is often one of the reasons defendants try to keep plaintiffs from collecting any money for as long as possible — to put more pressure on the plaintiff’s attorney, who is not receiving any money for his or her services for a very long time.
Happens Today, in the US, in the UK
Don’t think Churches of Christ do this sort of thing today? See this story.
And withdrawal from homosexual and transgender members is taught by some churches. See here, for example.
And the Daily Record (Scotland) reported on a mother who was disfellowshipped from her family, newly part of a Church of Christ there, after attending a different church, and reported on other controversial aspects of alleged activities of people associated with Churches of Christ there who reportedly came from Arkansas, Texas, and Colorado.
This case brought national attention on the Churches of Christ in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And continued to bring attention.
I wonder how many people it repelled from Church of Christ congregations. How do you think this impacted the reputation of the Churches of Christ? How many people did it repel from the church?
Would you want to attend a church knowing that your private sins would be exposed publicly if the elders found out about them — either you repent of them in front of the whole church or you will be disfellowshipped (and they will be revealed in the process)?
Is this accountability and love and a Christian way of doing things?
What do you say? Was it right for the elders to disclose Ms. Guinn’s fornication to her congregation? Did they have the right to do so?
Should the church and elders here have had to pay Ms. Guinn?
Should churches and elders have to pay members and former members in situations in like this?
Should the courts be involved in situations like this?
Sources & Notes
The video of the episode of The Donahue show is here: The Donahue talk show.
The full opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, including dissents, is here: Guinn v. Church of Christ Collinsville.
Google Scholar shows 221 cites of the case as of January 9, 2020.
A New York Times article on the case is here: New York Times.
Chuck Colson mentioned the case in one of his books here: Colson.
Christianity Today published an article on the case: Christianity Today
15 years after, the Christian Chronicle published an interview with the attorney who represented the church here: Christian Chronicle.
Tulsa World and many other papers published articles on the case, too.
The story of a gay police officer’s mom who was a member of a Church of Christ is from KDVR.
The teaching from other churches is in an article at Authentic Theology.
The story of the allegations associated with the Church of Christ mentioned in the Daily Record (Scotland) relative to the mom who was allegedly disfellowshipped and people from Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, and elsewhere are reported here, here, and here.
Picture is a Fair Use screen-grab of a frame from the Donahue show at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mn0FNuXAX9E.
I have heard there is a 60 Minutes episode that discusses the case, but I have not located it.