Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Marian Guinn Case: Improper use of church discipline

I grew up in the Mandaluyong Bible Baptist Church in Nueve de Febrero St. under missionary Fred Null and his wife Lorene, and Pastor Wen Secillano. In my childhood, I witnessed two cases where the church imposed discipline on some erring members guilty of sexual misconduct. These experiences gave me awesome respect for the process of church discipline.

Several years ago, J. Carl Laney came here to the Philippines to give a seminar on church discipline based on his book. I think the seminar was held at the Greenhills Christian Fellowship and reportedly some 400 pastors attended the seminar.

The process of church discipline is clearly spelled out in Matthew chapter 18. In a previous post, I gave you the complete text of a Supreme Court decision on the issue of church discipline (expulsion of members) in a case involving "The Church in Quezon City." Our discussion on the improper use of church displine will now focus on the American case of "Marian Guinn versus the Church of Christ of Collinsville."

Briefly, after being disciplined by her church, Marian Guinn sued her church. She won around four hundred thousand dollars in damages from the trial court. (The church budget was only around sixty five thousand dollars a year.) The church appealed to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court, which remanded the case to the trial court. The State Supreme Court ruled that all actions of the church in disciplining Guinn while she was still a church member fell under the mantle of freedom of religion and therefore were beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts. But the Court also ruled that all actions of the church after Guinn had withdrawn her membership from the church was no longer protected by freedom of religion, and the church could therefore be held accountable for damages. Reportedly, the church settled out of court with Guinn rather than go through a new trial.

The question is, Why did the church continue with the imposition of discipline when Guinn had already withdrawn her membership from the church? Well, the church did not have a provision in its Constitution for a member withdrawing membership. The church also did not have a tradition of a member withdrawing her membership; in cases of discipline, it was the church which withdrew fellowship with the erring church member.

Below are the facts of the case as taken from the decision of the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. I will discuss later on the ramifications of the said decision.


On appeal from the District Court, ¶0 In an action for damages from invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, brought by a former parishioner against the congregation and its leadership, judgment was rendered on a jury verdict for the plaintiff. On appeal by the defendants, JUDGMENT IS REVERSED AND CAUSE REMANDED.

[775 P.2d 767]

¶1 The dispositive first-impression question presented is whether a state forensic inquiry into an alleged tortious act by a religious body against its former member is an unconstitutional usurpation of the church's prerogatives by a secular court and hence prohibited by the First Amendment. We answer in the negative.


¶2 The plaintiff-appellee, Marian Guinn [Parishioner], and her children moved to Collinsville, Oklahoma in 1974. While staying with her sister, Parishioner became acquainted with the defendants-appellants, Ron Whitten, Ted Moody and Allen Cash [collectively referred to as the "Elders"] in their capacities as Elders of the Collinsville Church of Christ. A few weeks later, Parishioner became a member of that congregation. Both Parishioner and the Elders agree that the first few years of Parishioner's membership reflected the mutual support inherent in a relationship between a religious organization and one of its members. Parishioner attended services and the congregation extended to her a financial and emotional helping hand.

¶3 In 1980 the Elders confronted Parishioner with a rumor that she was having sexual relations with a male Collinsville resident [companion], who was not a member of the Church of Christ. According to the Elders, they pursued this rumor in order to uphold their doctrinal commands which require that they, as church leaders, monitor the congregation members' actions, as well as confront and discuss [775 P.2d 768] problems with any one who is "having trouble." The Church of Christ follows a literal interpretation of the Bible which serves as the church's sole source of moral, religious and ethical guidance. When confronted with the allegation, Parishioner admitted violating the Church of Christ's prohibition against fornication. As a transgressor of the denomination's code of ethics, Parishioner became subject to the disciplinary procedure set forth in Matthew 18:13-17.1

¶4 The Elders carried out the biblically-mandated disciplinary procedure in three stages, with the entire process lasting more than a year. First, the Elders approached Parishioner and her children in a laundromat and requested that she appear before the church and repent of the fornication sin. They also suggested that Parishioner refrain from seeing her companion.

¶5 The second of the three "meetings" was held at the church. According to the Parishioner, her attendance dropped considerably after the Elders initially confronted her in the laundromat. The Elders had called Parishioner and told her that if she did not come to church to discuss her continuing relationship with her companion they would come to her house. Although the bad weather that night made the Parishioner anxious about leaving her children alone, she decided to meet with the Elders at the church. They instructed her to stop seeing her companion. Parishioner agreed this was the best solution because her relationship with him was deteriorating.

¶6 The third and final meeting took place on the driveway outside the Parishioner's home when she was under suspicion of having been with her companion. The Elders parked near Parishioner's house and awaited her arrival. When Parishioner's car pulled into the driveway, the Elders approached it and told Parishioner and her companion that if she did not appear before the congregation and repent of her fornication sin, the members would "withdraw fellowship"2 from her.

¶7 On September 21, 1981, a few days after the third meeting, the Elders sent Parishioner a letter warning her that if she did not repent, the withdrawal of fellowship process would be commenced. At this point Parishioner realized the Elders intended to inform the congregation of her sexual involvement with the companion. She sought legal advice in an effort to ascertain her rights. On September 24 her lawyer sent the Elders a letter and advised them not to expose Parishioner's private life to the Collinsville congregation which comprised approximately five percent of the town's population. The Elders did not heed her lawyer's advice.

¶8 On September 25, 1981 Parishioner wrote the Elders a letter imploring them not to mention her name in church except to tell the congregation that she had withdrawn from membership. The Elders ignored Parishioner's requests. On September 27 [775 P.2d 769] they read to the congregation the September 21 letter they had sent to Parishioner. During the same service the Elders advised the congregation to contact Parishioner and to encourage her to repent and return to the Church. The Elders also told the congregation that should their attempts fail, the scriptures Parishioner had violated would be read aloud at the next service and the withdrawal of fellowship proceeding would begin.

¶9 Parishioner met with one of the Elders personally and again attempted to dissuade him from divulging her private life to the congregation. The Elder told her that withdrawing membership from the Church of Christ was not only doctrinally impossible but it could not halt the disciplinary sanction being carried out against her. The Church of Christ believes that all its members are a family; one can be born into a family but can never truly withdraw from it. A Church of Christ member can voluntarily join the church's flock but cannot then disassociate oneself from it.

¶10 According to one of the Elders, Parishioner was publicly branded a fornicator when the scriptures she had violated were recited to the Collinsville Church of Christ congregation on October 4. As part of the disciplinary process the same information about Parishioner's transgressions was sent to four other area Church of Christ congregations to be read aloud during services.

¶11 For the torts of outrage and invasion of privacy Parishioner recovered actual and punitive damages from the three Elders and from the Collinsville Church of Christ.3 Parishioner alleged in her claim of outrage that when disciplining her the Elders employed methods which caused her emotional anguish. Her claim of invasion of privacy was cast in two theories. Firstly, Parishioner asserted the Elders intruded upon her seclusion by carrying out against her religious disciplinary measures which were highly offensive, unreasonable and intrusive. Secondly, Parishioner claimed the Elders unreasonably publicized private facts about her life by communicating her transgressions to the Collinsville and the four other area Church of Christ congregations. After overruling the Elders' demurrers and their motion for summary judgment, the trial court submitted the case to the jury; its verdict was in favor of Parishioner and against each of the three individual Elders. The parties stipulated the Elders were at all times acting as agents of the Church of Christ corporation and thus the trial court found the judgment against the Elders also was a judgment against the Collinsville Church of Christ. The jury awarded $205,000 in actual and $185,000 in punitive damages; the trial court then added $44,737 in prejudgment interest.